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The Humbling of a Substitute Teacher

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The little girl is cute as can be. She has a button of a nose that she wrinkles up when you say it’s time for math, and her coarse black hair is braided into unwieldy pigtails that spring out from the sides of her head. Right now, her mouth is open in a little o and she is looking at you as if you are very dangerous indeed. Perhaps a psychopath.

And you are acting like one. You are bending over and yelling into her little face at the top of your lungs, “I don’t care whose job it is, you are doing it and you are doing it now! I am sick of this!”

Suddenly all the children in the class are busily stacking their chairs as if they do this every afternoon, which they do not. It’s why your back has gone out of whack and you’ve been gobbling Advil for two days and are unable to chase wayward children down the hall when you tell them they can’t go to the water fountain but they go anyway. Because you end every day by stacking twenty chairs and then stooping and stooping and stooping, gathering scissors and crayons and water bottles and abandoned spelling worksheets and all the detritus of the day which other teachers somehow manage to have their children pick up, but you can not.

This is why I am yelling at the cute little girl. I am in pain. The teacher for whom I was supposed to sub two days has shingles and this is day five with her unruly class. (It has been confirmed by several teachers that this is one of the toughest classes in the school, and I am highly relieved to hear this.) It is fifteen minutes before dismissal, the end of the day so close I can smell it, and this little girl has blurted out the last of one too many “nos,” one too many “it’s not my jobs,” and one too many “but our teacher lets us do a, b, or c.”

True, the girl has been acting up and getting worse all week, aligning herself with the constantly trying second grade boys. But she has not been responsible for most of the week’s trouble in this, my first eye-opening week of substitute teaching.

Tomorrow I will apologize to her in front of the class. To show them how grownups who are not psychopaths behave.

I FORGOT

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Apologies if I Offend, but I’m Offended

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As with all religions, I believe there’s a lot about Catholicism that’s good, quite a bit that’s questionable, and a few aspects that make me shudder. If I were a Catholic, my personal crusade (now there’s a shudder for you) would be organizing my fellow parishioners against the rule that non-Catholics aren’t allowed to take communion in their church. I mean, really — remember Jesus? Come-unto-me, God-loves-everyone Jesus? Perhaps with Pope Francis in the Vatican, there would be a chance.

I went to a Catholic funeral mass this morning. After a long ninety minutes, it came time for the eucharist. The priest got up, sang a nice chant, and said “For you Christians who aren’t Catholic, unfortunately, we are not able to share communion with you. During this time please be praying for unity in the church.” Unity in the church? WHAT??

When presented with this situation over the years, I have gone forward and pretended to be Catholic, watching others so I’d know how to cross myself. I have rebelliously walked down the aisle and taken communion in all my non-Catholic glory, daring the priest with my eyes to refuse me. I have gone forward and received a blessing, something that some Catholic churches offer for those of us not good enough for their communion wafers. I have stayed in my seat, sometimes stewing in resentment, sometimes quietly praying, depending on the day. I have excused myself and gone to the restroom.

Today I was already angry because the priest had just finished explaining that Heaven is for God and for the people that God loves. Again: WHAT??? Only one way to hear that: God loves some of us, but not others. You can believe whatever you like about Jesus, an after-life, heaven & hell, whatever. But you don’t get to say that God only loves certain people. Purple robes and incense notwithstanding. God IS love, just IS, so how could God NOT love?

So I couldn’t help it, when the priest declared my unfitness for the Lord’s supper, which Jesus himself asked his friends to always share together in remembrance of him, I sat in my pew and rudely shook my head for all to see. It’s just wrong, and Catholics should rebel against it.

After that, I sat quietly and prayed that God would heal my anger and pettiness, the church’s hubris, and all people — all of us.

All are welcome in these seats, not matter what the guy in the purple robe says.

All are welcome in these seats, no matter what the guy in the purple robe says.

How to Forgive

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January is a time for new beginnings, and beginnings often entail a few endings as well. Whatever we’re hoping to launch this year, we’d best begin by sussing out detrimental attitudes that could hold us back. Identifying the emotional baggage that drags us down, figuring out why we’ve been hauling it around, and becoming willing to let it go is half the battle of new beginnings.

New Beginnings

New Beginnings

Some of the heaviest pieces of baggage come in the form of old grudges. Unforgiveness. Lingering anger. Resentment. I’ve heard it said that resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die, and it’s true. Every bit of brain matter you dedicate to obsessive anger and resentment is a drain on your life, and it doesn’t affect the object of your scorn one iota.

What a waste of energy!

It is Time

Once you’re in the habit of dragging around resentment, it becomes the norm. You hoard old slights and hurts and betrayals in a dark cave inside yourself and fret about them, turning them over and over, musing and muttering over them like a crazy miser with his gold.

And it is kind of crazy — would a mentally healthy person do that? Spend time engaging in activities that make them feel bad? Giving another person or entity control over their emotions — sometimes a dead person or someone they haven’t seen in years? You probably know someone like this (hopefully this is not you): so far inside their dark, angry caves that they’ve become a victim of the whole world. Rage is the symptom.

Case in point: There are currently a handful of right-wing nuts holding an empty visitor’s center hostage in the Oregon desert because they think they are victims of a vast government conspiracy. They are expecting to die over this. (Hopefully this is not you, either.)

OK, extreme case. Back to those of us who live in reality.

It is time: Let. It. Go.

Just how long would you like to hold on to that resentment?

Just how long would you like to hold on to that resentment?

OK, but . . . how?

Getting Ready to Let Go

#1 Notice your burden. Look for resentments in your life and write them down. Write down what happened, what the other person or entity’s role was, what your role was. Be as honest as you can. If there was a third party involved, talk to them to get their honest assessment, or talk to a friend familiar with the situation. Ask them to tell you if you’ve been over-reacting — and do not add them to your resentment pile if they say yes! 

Recognizing that you might have contributed to your own negative experience can be humbling, and it may lead to compassion for yourself and for the other person involved — perhaps forgiveness? In the end, even if it was 100% the other party’s “fault,” you’re still the one being poisoned by the lingering resentment.

#2 Recognize that you are probably getting some benefit from holding on to the resentment. What is it? The armed nut-balls in Oregon seem to have made their resentment a reason for living — a purpose for life, not to mention a way to get on the news.

Most often, though, I think resentments protect us from pain. Or guilt and shame. We get angry because we don’t want to feel the pain and sadness underneath. That works for a time. Or we blame others because we don’t want to feel shame about our own role. Being in a victim role means you get to escape responsibility, but at what cost to you and your new beginnings?

#3 – Become willing to let go of the benefits of resentment and accept your true feelings. The hurt beneath the anger, the fear beneath the scorn. You have to feel and name those feelings before you can let them go. This takes work, but it’s worth it. Those feelings are your teachers, and they can help you take care of yourself and lead a life free from fear and bitterness and anger . . . but only if you accept and process them. So I’ll devote the rest of this post to a method I use that has been downright miraculous for me. It’s called Welcoming Prayer, but if you’re not a prayer-person, you can call it whatever you like.

It goes like this:

Letting Go

Go someplace where you can be alone in silence. Gaze out a window or at a candle or a piece of artwork. Relax. Allow yourself to focus on the “bad” feeling. Name it. Anger? Hurt? Rage? Desperation? Sadness? Notice where in your body you experience the feeling. Your chest? Your head? Your stomach? Your throat? Put your hand there and sit with the feeling. Then say: “Welcome, {feeling}. I know you are here to teach me. I welcome you.”

Solitude and silence: Step One to Serenity

Solitude and Silence: Step One to Serenity

Some background: This method is based on the work of Father Thomas Keating and his belief — backed up by many psychologists — that humans have core “emotional programming for happiness” that gets us through life. From a very young age, we learn to seek and cling to safety and security, esteem and affection, and power and control. Memorize these. I can guarantee you that at some level, no matter what gets you stirred up or upset, one or more of these “needs” is at the bottom of it. When one of them is threatened, we often react from deep childhood survival programming and lose perspective. We act like angry children instead of adults.

So, after you have named and welcomed your feeling and identified where it’s centered in your body, you may sit with the feeling as long as feels right. Because you are going to let it go, so you want to be completely ready. If you give it some thought, you will likely be able to tell exactly which of childhood emotional needs has been threatened by the situation/person that was the catalyst for your pain and resentment or anger. Sometimes all of them are involved — these are the toughest to release.

When you are ready, say “I accept the lessons I’m learning from this {feeling} and I release my need for safety and security, esteem and affection, and power and control.” Then you may release your feeling. Or you may keep it around a while to pray about, think about, write about, and learn from. Think of it as a visitor, no longer a permanent resident.

The God Question

I’m a God-person, so when I release my emotional needs and pain, I do it by turning them over to God. God’s got my back; I don’t need to protect my safety and security, esteem and affection, and power and control. Using this method over time, I get stirred up less and less often, being assured that I belong, I’m safe, and I’m loved beyond imagining. My clinging, fearful child has quieted down. I forgive “trespasses” soooo much more easily than I used to. 

At Peace with the Past

Learning to Be at Peace

If you’re not a God-person, I suppose you could release those needs to the universe or the cosmos or some “higher power that is greater than yourself,” as the twelve-step recovery folks say. Perhaps you could imagine putting your unwanted emotions on a train and then watching it disappear down the track. Or imagine dropping them in a river and watching them float out of sight. However you envision releasing your negativity, the point is to send it packing.

So there — there’s my new year’s gift to you. I wish you a 2016 full of healthy new beginnings!

Sharing My Sadness – Forgive the Language

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I just have to tell this story, although I’d rather not release any more negative energy into the world. It’s weighing on me, though, and it seems I have to share the burden. Please forgive the language.

Last Night:

After two blissful hours wandering amongst the stacks at the public library, I was checking out an armload of books and feeling happy and self-satisfied, having had an unusually productive and enjoyable day.

A cute little pig-tailed girl, maybe five or six years old, hopped up and down while her mother checked out books. Earlier, I had heard the woman spit-whisper at the child, something like, “Shut up and get your ass over here! You are annoying the hell out of me,” and I pondered the fact that probably not everyone should take on parenthood.

Then this, at full volume: “It looks like it’s going to be one of the nights when I whip the shit out of you when we get home.”

I gasped, I think.

The woman looked at me and I looked at her. “Yeah, I said that,” she challenged.

I went back to checking out my books and didn’t speak. There were no words. She moved closer to me and said louder, “Yeah, I said that.”

“I heard you,” I said quietly, and looked her full in the face.

She grabbed the girl’s wrist and headed for the door, throwing over her shoulder, “There are some weird-ass people in this town.”

Of course, I’ve spent the day second-guessing what I should have said or done. Sometimes I feel as if I’m just not meant to live in this world. Even a trip to the library can be gut-kicking painful.

How would you react?

Children are a gift from God

Children are a gift from God

Lessons From the Fall: The Illusion of Control

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Here I sit reading a book, sipping green tea, without a thing on my absolutely-must-do list for days to come. And man, am I pissed about it. Why? Because I did not choose this lazy afternoon; it chose me.

For reasons that I hope will one day become clear, the Universal Narrative decided it might be a fun plot twist for me to fracture the shoulder of my right, dominant arm.

I am typing this with the index finger of my left hand, so it will be short.

This was to have been a week of house cleaning. I have friends coming from Florida next week to help celebrate my sixtieth birthday, and I wanted to at least clear a path through the clutter in my house so they could visit. In fact, it was a well-placed vacuum cleaner cord that led to my fall in the hallway last week. (I’m not used to the thing being out of the closet.)

There is to be a party, which involves chairs and food platters and coolers, none of which I can move.

There is my planned pilgrimage to New Mexico, less than two weeks away, which will involve yoga and pottery wheels and body prayer, none of which I can do.

There is taking a shower, brushing my teeth, putting on my socks, opening a can of soup, fastening my seatbelt — everything is a challenge now.

All of these things, I thought I controlled. I do not. I never did. All our ideas of control are an illusion. This is why there are so many angry people in the world — they have not yet surrendered to this truth.

When it’s time for a plot twist, all you can do is trust that there’s a larger story going on and that your present circumstance will contribute to your personal growth.You turn the page and keep reading from a new perspective.

Lesson number one: I am not in control. Stay tuned.

flowers and Dayspring 039

Raging at the Darkness and Reaching for the Light

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001.tree

I want to write about light and hope and sparkly Christmas ornaments, but that’s difficult because the first anniversary of my brother’s death is looming, plus America’s legal system seems to be OK with black people being murdered in the streets. These two facts may seem unrelated to you, but they’ve become intertwined in my mind.

Together they form a tangled mental mess that causes me to walk around the house kicking crap on the floor and mumbling “God damn it, God damn it.” Let the record show, this is highly unusual (my mumbled curses, not the crap on the floor).

I’ve been in a rage lately. I’m angry that my brother died, angry at the way he died, and angry at injustice in the world. I’m angry at God because I strongly disapprove of the way the world works at times. I’m angry at evil and abhor the dark stains on the human soul. I’m angry at death and mental illness.

In theory, my anger fits nicely into Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grieving, but I’m angry at her, too, for suggesting that anger can be neatly boxed up and understood. Grief does not progress in an A, then B, then C fashion.

Fear of the Dark

My anger stems from the unwelcome fact that I am powerless over the darkness in the world. In the scheme of things, I can do nothing about illness and death and injustice. I can flail and rant and wave protest signs and stamp my feet and cry and spew angry blogs. I can kick crap around the floor. But in the end, I must accept being powerless and relinquish my treasured illusion of control if I’m to avoid depression and anxiety and find a measure of peace in this life.

Being powerless makes me afraid. My lack of control over my brother’s dreadful death and the fact that African-American men and boys are dying at the hands of authorities in (at best) questionable circumstances makes me feel unsafe.

Yes, I could ignore or deny the injustice against blacks — being white, I don’t live in fear for my own family’s safety. Still, when they announced the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to charge the officer who strangled Eric Garner, let alone the ones who stood around and watched Eric expire, I felt exactly the way I did on September 11, 2001. And in 2000 when the Supreme Court told the state of Florida to simply stop counting votes in the presidential election. Didn’t we want to know who got the most votes? Apparently we did not.

The world is not supposed to work this way. Massive skyscrapers aren’t supposed to crumble. The Supreme Court isn’t supposed to be political. Officers of the law aren’t supposed to strangle people.

Wrong. I keep rediscovering that the people and systems that I thought had our backs do not. There are no failsafes; our systems are not just; the world is not fair.

Seeing the Light

Despite my best efforts at denial, I think I’m finally coming to accept that this is how the world is.

When my brother died, I had to accept that I can’t escape the ugliness and darkness in the world. Nor should I try. As a praying person, I feel some responsibility to be a witness to injustice and pain and to wail with the world. To stand with the oppressed the way Jesus always stood with the oppressed. To ask questions. He didn’t throw stones at an angry mob of oppressors, instead he stood with a woman about to be stoned and said, “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” The mob went away.

You see, Jesus brought God’s light into the darkness. He didn’t respond out of fear, he responded out of love and compassion. That’s why followers of Jesus celebrate Christmas, because we believe there is hope in the darkness. We’re still following that star.

star of bethlehem

Of course a society that’s based on consumerism (greed) and power (injustice is inevitable) has trouble seeing this light. The light can’t be measured by scientists or owned by corporations or controlled by fear-mongering politicians or manipulated by statisticians. For many people these days, the light simply does not compute.

“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it,” wrote Jesus’s friend John.

Light into Darkness

Light into Darkness

Living in the Light

Don’t ask me why (it’s another part of God’s plan that seems crazy to me) but one of the best ways to see God’s light in the world is through individuals — flawed and broken people. Every one of us carries God’s light, but we aren’t required to tend it. We can choose the darkness instead.

According to the Bible, the result of focusing on the light instead of the darkness is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” That’s why I pray and meditate, because I want all that. I want to connect with the light and the love. I’ll probably always struggle to accept the darkness along with the light. Last month, I gave an entire sermon about finding hope in grief and loss, yet here I am again. Fear is a powerful motivator. But perfect love drives out fear.

So as I enter Christmas week — and the week that marks my brother’s death — I’m dealing with anger. That’s OK. Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died, and he trashed the tables of the powerful oppressors who were ripping off the poor in Jerusalem. He got sad and he got mad. And I imagine God is pretty pissed about the way the world is today, too.

winter 2013 & Jesus pix 045.tear

Civil rights leader Baynard Rustin said, “Let us be enraged about injustice, but let us not be destroyed by it.” Easier said than done, but a worthy goal.

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, I pray for you a light and love-filled holiday season.

A Rant at God with a (Borrowed) Redemptive Message

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This post had been relegated to the “failed drafts” folder, for having no redeeming qualities and managing to sound pissy despite being toned down more than once, when who should walk into my living room and say, “whoa, stop, you should publish that” than my favorite author Anne Lamott!?

DSCN2412

Here’s Anne Lamott giving me profound advice.

That’s not precisely how it happened, but it felt like that. What actually happened was that Anne published a blog post similar in energy and tone to this one, except that it’s beautifully written and ends on a somewhat redemptive note.

So in a cheap writerly turnabout, I’m going to append Anne’s post to this one and call the whole thing a plus for the universal karma.

Even if it is essentially just a rant at God. Anne’s kind of bitching at God, too, which makes it acceptable. I don’t like taking this tone with God, but it’s all I’ve got right now. Besides, the Psalms are full of “godly” people throwing out angry questions like:

“Why is life like this, God?” 

“What’s it take to get your attention down here?”

“Hello, how much do we have to put up with before you see our plight?”

“Is this any way to run a world??”

So I’m joining the ranks of ranters. If you’re depressed, please don’t read this. It won’t help.

Dear God:

Things are bad. Really, really bad. And I’m thinking it’s time for you to fix it. 

I’m confused about the plan, God.

It’s my understanding that we all have a spark of the Divine within us, and it’s our job in life to dismantle the inner obstacles that keep us from channeling Pure You — goodness and love and the like. That’s one of the ways you reveal yourself in the world: through the people you created. I like this part of the plan.

We need to intentionally connect with you so that we have the desire and power to fix what we’ve screwed up here. OK, I’m game. And I’m certain that you are right here in this mess, accompanying us and offering to help us clean things up.

And thanks for that. But — from my humble vantage point, this plan is not working. 

I don't know which one bothers me more -- the one spewing hateful fire, or the one who thinks this is just TOO fun! Photo: Dallas Morning News

Which is more offensive? The one spewing hate or the one who thinks this is just TOO much fun? Photo: Dallas Morning News

We’re a Mess

Maybe I’m just having a bad day; I’ve been having a lot of them lately. But I don’t think it’s only me. Three friends have recently said these exact words to me: “I can barely function.” 

These are praying people, trying to channel God, but instead they seem to have tapped into the spirit of Eeyore. Should we just put extra-strength anti-depressants in the water supply and be done with it? 

Woe is Me

Woe is Me

As a friend said the other day, “I don’t know what’s going on — it seems like everyone’s walking around under a dark cloud.”

Yeah – and we’re a bunch of relatively well-off suburbanites doing our gardening and going to the gym and paying the gas bill. We don’t live in the frickin’ Gaza Strip; our daughters weren’t kidnapped by extremists in Nigeria, nor were our families on the Malaysian airliner recently blown out of the sky. Or any of the other planes that have been falling out of the sky of late.

This Rant Precipitated By…

World events did not bring on this rant, though they may have contributed.

Here’s what put me over the edge:

I stopped to give my condolences to my neighbor J who had just returned from North Carolina where she was cleaning out the beach house of her recently deceased partner. Who as you know, God, randomly fell and hit his head and died. Just like that. Did that have to happen — right after J’s surgery and during her radiation treatment for breast cancer? 

Anyway, I was helping her carry things from the car and she told me she had just had an accident on the beltway. “It isn’t the accident that’s got me shaken, it was the other woman. She had the foulest mouth of anyone I’ve ever met.” 

You have to picture my neighbor J — First of all, she’s clearly a cancer patient; she’s bald. She’s very pale. I don’t think she hits five feet, even with her little pink sunhat perched on her bald head. She somehow reminds me of a rabbit — timid and watchful, always sniffing the wind and ready to bolt. 

Here’s what the other woman on the beltway said to her: “F&&%%CK YOU! Look what you did to my car! YOU F$@*CKING BI#%^CH! My fifty-thousand-dollar Mercedes! I’m going to get you for this, you F%&$CKING BI#%^CH! I’m going to get you!”

“She didn’t just say it once, she said it about fifty times,” said J, looking dazed. “She gave me her insurance card, but when I tried to copy it down, she snatched it back and started screaming, ‘I’m going to get you, bi*^%ch!’” Then the woman drove off.

I told J that the woman was clearly unbalanced, and to try to let it go and simply call the police to report the accident. 

“I think she had some anger issues,” ventured J. 

I Am Not Amused, God

Who would do that, God? Mentally unbalanced or not, the madwoman in the Mercedes functions well enough to have a good job and make good money. Can’t she afford a therapist? How can she walk around like that, an infected open wound gushing venom on little old ladies with cancer?

I won’t even start on mental illness, God, because you know how angry I am about that, regularly haranguing you about my brother’s descent into darkness and death. I probably sound a bit like the Mercedes Madwoman myself as I grumpily tackle the gloomy task of cleaning out his hoarder-house. But at least I’m not inflicting my temper tantrums on anyone but you.

Is There a Plan B?

What about the young woman I know who just slashed her wrists with the lid of a can? And my sweet, intelligent young friend who is stuck in a religious cult?

Why are so many people so sick? Aren’t you going to do something about this? Why are we killing each other all the time? Why did you make us like this? I know that you want us to choose differently, to be the loving and lovely people you made us to be. But we don’t seem to be doing that.

So excuse my impertinence, God, but don’t you have a Plan B? Are we *really* the hope of the world? 

Thanks for bearing with me, readers. And now for that promised redemption. Here’s Anne Lamott:

https://www.facebook.com/AnneLamott/posts/524013137728334

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