Faith

My First Communion
My First Communion

I haven’t yet directly discussed my religious faith, but I think it’s about time I did.  After all, if this blog is about my deepest influences, well, this is the deepest.  The thing is, my story isn’t all that exciting.  I don’t have an interesting conversion story.  I was raised Catholic, and I have never wandered away from the Church.  As a teenager, I transferred to a Catholic high school and loved it.  I went to Mass every Sunday when I was away at college.  I even taught the 5th grade Sunday school class during my senior year.  When I was starting my first teaching job and suffering from social anxiety disorder, attending Mass was about the only thing I did that got me out of my apartment and into my new community.

Maybe if I have not questioned my faith deeply or struggled with serious doubts, it means that my faith is shallow or childish, but I don’t think so.  Whenever I stop and ask myself, what if I’m wrong?  what if there is no God?  or what if the Muslims have it right, or the Jews have it right?  then nothing makes sense to me.  The only thing that makes sense of the universe for me is my belief that God loves His creatures so much that His Son chose to become one of us, to show us how to live and to submit humbly to torture and death before rising again so that all of our sins can be forgiven if we ask.  I realize that to a non-believer that must sound crazy, but it’s all about love.  If you’re a parent, you might be able to relate to this.  Wouldn’t you face torture and death in this life in order to have your children with you forever in the next?

Of course, there’s a lot more to practicing a religion than just attending services at a house of worship.  My Catholic faith influences everything I do, or at least it’s supposed to.  I certainly fall short on a daily basis, but I keep trying.  I try to treat every person with love and respect.  I try to help those in need and comfort those who are suffering or grieving.  I try to live with integrity.  I try to honor my calling as a wife and mother.  I try to make time for silent reflection so that I can hear God talking to me.  I try.

I have read about two similar spiritual visions concerning the final judgment of souls at the moment of death.  They were strikingly similar to each other, and they both struck a chord with me.  In each of these separate visions, God asked the soul, “Do you love Me?  Do you want to be with Me?”  That might sound amazingly easy.  Who would choose to go to Hell?  Yet, in each of these visions, someone did.  One was a young, married woman, and the other was actually Stalin.  Both of them had made a habit of turning away from God during this life.  They had conditioned their souls to reject Him.  Whether or not these visions are true, they have taught me how important it is to build the habit of turning to God always.

I practice turning my heart to Him in every little thing, not just when I want something.  A few nights ago, I turned off the light over the kitchen sink just as the stars were coming out, and I turned to Him in praise and wonder at His creation.  When I am rocking Rose at bedtime and she is getting relaxed and sleepy in my arms, I turn to Him in thanks for my precious baby.  I will keep practicing.

 

Star Wars

After some of the more difficult topics I have addressed, I decided to write about something much more fun:  my love of Star Wars.  If you haven’t seen the movies, there are a few spoilers ahead.

I can’t remember a time in my life when Star Wars wasn’t part of my consciousness.  I remember R2D2 and C3PO on Sesame Street.  I remember my Princess Leia Underoos.  I can’t remember the first time I saw A New Hope because it seems as if it’s always been familiar to me.  I do know that I saw the original trilogy out of order.  When I finally saw The Empire Strikes Back, the mystery of how Han Solo ended up frozen in carbonite was answered for me.  I clearly remember the first time I saw Return of the Jedi.  I was eight years old during the summer between second and third grade when my dad took my sister Heather and me to the movie theater to see what is still my favorite Star Wars movie.  I know that Empire is considered the best, but Jedi is Luke’s movie, and as a child I wanted to be Luke Skywalker.  Oh, the cool Luke moments in Jedi:  his confidence in Jabba’s palace, his courage in facing Vader, his faith in his father’s goodness, his moral triumph as he throws down his weapon and stands before the Emperor as a Jedi Knight who cannot be turned to the dark side.

I should also mention my love for Leia, whom I contend is one of the greatest female characters of all time.  We meet her as a very young woman who can stand up to Vader and Tarkin and withstand torture.  She does not betray the Rebels even when her home planet is threatened.  By Jedi she is a woman whose strength and confidence are not diminished by the famous “gold bikini” slave girl outfit.  She is wearing that outfit when she wraps her chains around Jabba’s neck and strangles him.  I also appreciate the fact that she can fall in love and show a human heart.  She is not a hard person.

I spent my childhood playing Star Wars.  I always played the part of either Princess Leia or Luke Skywalker, but I never had any of the toys.  I don’t know for sure why that is, but it’s possible that Heather and I overwhelmed our parents with our long lists of action figures, ships, and playsets at Christmastime, and they just didn’t know where to start.  Oh, how I longed for a Millenium Falcon.  When Heather and I got to be teenagers with our own spending money, we started buying each other Star Wars toys and collectibles for birthday and Christmas gifts.  I had quite a collection, but now I have winnowed it down to just a few of my favorites after being inspired to declutter my home.

As for the other movies in the saga, I don’t wish to discuss the prequels, and I have too much that I want to say about The Force Awakens.  I’ll just mention that I love the new characters of Finn, Poe, and Rey.

In this blog, I am supposed to focus on how my topic has influenced me.  Well, Star Wars helped bring me together with my husband.  Dan and I met at work.  When I started a new job, Dan was assigned to be my mentor, and our classrooms were directly across that hall from each other.  I already had seven years of experience teaching high school English, so I didn’t need a lot of mentoring, but I did need a friend.  Dan and I are just about the same age, and we had both grown up on Star Wars.  The first time we got together socially outside of school he came over to my house to play Star Wars Trivial Pursuit.  (I won!)  We didn’t go on an official date until four months after that, but it was only a year and a half later that we were married.  To have a little fun at our wedding reception and to recognize the role Star Wars played in bringing us together we made our entrance to the Star Wars “Main Theme”, and we had Star Wars figures on our cake, Leia and Han on the top as the bride and groom, and some of their friends and family to represent our wedding party.

Photo by Jeff Bach
Photo by Jeff Bach

We are passing on our love of Star Wars to our children.  They’re a little scared of Darth Vader, so they’ve watched only select scenes from the movies, but they have Dan’s old toys to play with (Santa brought him lots of Star Wars figures!) and they have lightsabers made out of pool noodles thanks to their Aunt Heather.  I hope that Star Wars will help to teach them lessons about how to be brave, how to listen to their intuition, how to stand up for right, and how to see the good in almost anyone.

 

Summer School

Two weeks ago I started teaching two sections of English 9.  I’ve been at home with my children for the past four years, except for two other stints with summer school, and I was a little nervous about getting back into the classroom.  I didn’t teach last summer since I’d just had a baby.  Maybe I should have listened to my nerves.

Don’t get me wrong.  I still know what I’m doing.  I craft good lessons.  I’m aware of what’s going on in the classroom.  Seriously, why do these kids think I can’t tell when they’re texting under their desks?  I can even walk around the room, stepping over backpacks, while I read aloud.  But within the first couple of days back I had an epiphany:  I’m not supposed to be doing this.

Last Tuesday I came home from summer school to a quiet house.  My “big kids” were playing at our next-door neighbor’s house.  Dan and baby Rose were both napping.  I took advantage of the quiet to get a couple of tasks done.  As I was putting away some clean laundry, I realized that I felt useful and fulfilled.  Peace washed over me.  Taking care of my family gives me a sense of purpose.  Struggling to inspire a roomful of fifteen-year-olds to open their copies of To Kill a Mockingbird does not.

Today I came home from school in tears because I have a couple of students who are so rude and disruptive that I cannot get anything done in their class.  Every time I send one of them to the office, the administrators send them right back to me because they’ve “promised not to be rude anymore.”  There is no phone number on record for one of these boys.  I spoke to the parents of the other this afternoon.  They are very concerned about his low grades and think I should borrow an audio book of To Kill a Mockingbird from my local library because Sissy Spacek reads the book, and she’s just fantastic.  That might keep their son focused in class.  I didn’t bother telling them that their son harasses the only girl in the class about her “sexy voice” and called me a “milf” today.  I’m sure Sissy Spacek will keep him in line.

This experience is good for me in that it has helped me see clearly that my place right now is at home.  Maybe when my children are all in school I will go back to full time teaching, but I doubt it.  Maybe I’ll sub to earn some extra income for my family without the time commitment involved in planning and grading.  But I won’t be teaching summer school again. It’s true that money is tight for us these days. We don’t have cable, and we don’t have smart phones.  Dan and I don’t buy new clothes for ourselves, and we certainly don’t take vacations.  I am happy to sacrifice all those luxuries for peace in my soul and in my home.

These kids love it when I read to them!
These kids love it when I read to them!

Breastfeeding

When I decided to start a blog, I knew I didn’t want to write a “mommy blog.”  Don’t get me wrong, I love to read mommy blogs, but I needed to remind myself that there are other aspects of who I am.  Today, however, I am going to tackle a topic common among mommy bloggers:  breastfeeding.

When I was expecting Kathleen, I took a breastfeeding class and read up on the topic.  Yet, when the nurse helped me latch her on the first time, I was completely unprepared for how hard it was going to be.  For the next two days in the hospital I needed assistance every time my baby needed to eat.  I was bruised and blistered from the struggle, and the kicker was that although it was difficult to get Kathleen to sleep at any other time, as soon as I latched her on, she would be out cold, and I couldn’t wake her up.

At home I kept plugging away.  Every couple of hours I would spend about 45 minutes pumping her arms and legs and blowing on her as the nurses had taught me to do to keep her awake and suckling.  At that point I would assume she had had plenty to eat, and I would release her.  Then the screaming began.  It must be gas pains, I thought.  I would pat her back 065and cycle her legs to help her work out the gas.

When she was a week old, her doctor had me start supplementing the breast milk with an ounce of formula after each feeding.  Still she would cry after eating, and still I thought it was gas pains.

I went back to the hospital for an appointment with a lactation consultant.  She gave me so many suggestions that I was overwhelmed and decided to follow the much simpler directions from our family doctor.  Gradually, supplementing with formula turned into giving her bottles and then letting her nurse if she seemed hungry or fussy.  By the time she was two months old, I was nursing only as a strategy to get my fussy girl to sleep.  I gave that up at three months, afraid that I was creating a bad habit.

Interestingly, it was only after I had my own struggles that my friends started to open up to me about how difficult breastfeeding had been for them too.  Some of them had ultimately overcome their difficulties and gone on to nurse for months or even a full year or more.  Others had switched to formula within the first couple of months.  Why hadn’t they shared any of this with me when I was pregnant?  I suspect that they were feeling embarrassed or guilty or even ashamed that something that’s supposed to be so natural was so difficult.  What if I turned out to be one of the lucky women who had no trouble?  They needed to see what would happen to me before they admitted their “secret.”

When I was expecting Daniel, I was determined to fix all the mistakes I had made with Kathleen.  I was going to ace breastfeeding this time.  First, I set up a rocking chair in a private corner so I wouldn’t have to ask visitors to wait on the porch while I fed my baby.  I bought a nursing cover up, something I hadn’t even known about until I saw Pam use one on The Office.

In the hospital after he was born, I found nursing to be incredibly painful again.  A nurse told me that it does tend to be more painful for women with fair skin and that I would just have to “power through it” until it got better.  She did, however, also tell me that I “could be the poster girl for the perfect latch.”  We had that down, but our first doctor visit revealed that Daniel’s weight was dropping enough to be of concern, and we had to stop in every couple of days to have him weighed.

One of the lactation consultants from the hospital developed a plan for me when she called to check in.  Every two to three hours around the clock I would hear Daniel start to wake up.  While my husband changed his diaper, I applied diapers soaked in warm water as compresses to my breasts to get my milk flowing.  Then I latched him onto each side for a minute or two to keep practicing that skill.  My husband took him at that point and gave him a bottle of either breast milk, if we had enough, or of formula, if we didn’t.  Then I pumped.  I had a single electric pump, and I was supposed to pump for 15-20 minutes on each side.  I would get about half an ounce of milk from each of these 30-40 minute pumping sessions.  By now, Daniel had been awake for almost an hour and was just about ready to go to sleep again.  Dan was the one bonding with Daniel and the one taking care of two-year-old Kathleen.  After nine days of that, I broke down in tears and quit.  I realized it was the best decision for my family to give Daniel formula and my attention, to help share child care with Dan, and to reassure Kathleen that her Mommy was still there.

It was only after my experience with baby Daniel that I understood what had actually gone wrong with Kathleen.  Why did she fall asleep on the breast?  Because she was comforted and snuggly, but there was nothing much worth staying awake for.  Why did she cry after a “feeding”?  Because she was hungry!  I felt so guilty after I put it all together.  My poor baby girl was getting just enough to provide nutrition thanks to the “supplemental” formula, but her tummy was never really full.

Two years after Daniel, Rose was on the way.  I didn’t have much hope, but I thought I would at least give breastfeeding a shot in the hospital.  At least she’d get a little colostrum from me, and maybe, just maybe, God would send me a special blessing, and I would miraculously have milk.

It didn’t happen that way.  I saw no evidence that she was getting anything from me.  When I pumped, I didn’t get a single drop.  After 24 hours, even the lactation consultant was ready to bring me formula.  We called it supplementing in the hospital, but on the drive home Dan and I agreed to give up the attempt.  Kathleen and Daniel had done fine on formula, and we knew Rose would too.  I was sad, but my first few weeks with Rose became my most peaceful experience bonding with my new child.

When Rose was about six weeks old, I came across this article.  The author, Nancy Mohrbacher, presents research that demonstrates that instead of urging women to try harder to breastfeed, we can actually make it easier for them.  In fact, nature intended the baby to participate actively in breastfeeding.  We’ve all seen puppies, kittens, and piglets snuggling up with their moms and suckling.  Guess what!  Human babies are meant to feed on their tummies just like piglets.  You can read the article for the scientific information on how lying tummy to tummy with their mommies triggers pressure points and activates reflexes that help baby latch on while mom relaxes.

Apparently, the reason “92% of nursing mothers reported significant breastfeeding challenges” during the first week is that we as a culture have forgotten how to do it.  Even many lactation consultants seem to be unfamiliar with “laid back breastfeeding.”  A century ago girls grew up watching their moms, aunts, and neighbors breastfeed.  When they became mothers themselves, they knew that women who had just given birth could rest in bed while baby suckled.  Today’s moms, for the most part, didn’t see anyone breastfeeding – at least not without a cover.  The image in our heads is a mother sitting upright in a rocking chair, holding her baby in her arms.  This position is sore for a woman who has just given birth and strains her arms, neck, and back.  She has to fight gravity to hold her baby that way.  “Natural Breastfeeding” puts gravity to work for her.

According to Mohrbacher, this approach can prevent latching difficulties and sore nipples.  I’m not sure if it would help with milk supply, but at the very least a woman who knows her baby is latching well and doesn’t experience pain is likely to stick with breastfeeding longer, giving her body a chance to increase milk production.

When I first read this article, I wanted to share it with the world in the hope that I could help other women avoid struggles similar to mine, but I didn’t share it with anyone.  Why not?  I was too afraid to admit publicly that I had failed at breastfeeding three times.  I was afraid of the judgment I would receive, of people telling me I should have tried harder, stayed with it longer.  If you read the comments following Mohrbacher’s article, you will understand my fear.  Some of the commenters refer to formula as “poison.”  Finally, I shared it privately with two of my Facebook friends who were expecting their first babies.  One of them let me know that this approach helped her.

Now I’ve decided that writing about my experiences with breastfeeding will be a way to set myself free from the shame I have felt.  It’s out in the open now, and maybe I can help a new mother who reads this.  Please be kind in your comments and refrain from telling me what I “should have done.”  The past cannot be changed.  We all do the best we can.045

Decluttering

When I wrote my previous post about the influence the FlyLady has had in my life for the past three years, I left out one of the most important aspects of her system.  I knew I would need to devote an entire post just to the freedom I have found in decluttering my possessions.  The FlyLady always says, “You can’t organize clutter.  You can only get rid of it.”  She expects her FlyBabies to pick an area in their homes and spend 15 minutes every day sorting through all the clutter. We have to decide for each item if we will put it away, throw it away, or give it away.  She has ways to make it fun like “Hot Spot Fire Drills” and “27 Fling Boogies,”  but the task is essential.  How can I wipe down my kitchen counters if they’re covered in piles of junk mail, expired coupons, and recipes I want to try?  How can I vacuum my bedroom if there are piles of clothes on the floor?  When we don’t have clutter everywhere, it is much easier to follow our routines.

When I started on the FlyLady’s babysteps, I began to look at all my stuff differently.  Why did I have three rubber spatulas?  If I didn’t even like that book when I read it in college, why is it taking up space on my bookshelves?  If we don’t have any full-size beds in the house, why do we have full-size sheets in the linen closet?  One reason we hold onto things is the fear that we might need it someday.  It can be anything from a twist tie to an old sofa.  The thing is, I’ve been filling my home with things I might need someday, but I’ve been denying myself what I do need right now:  peace.  I’ve lost count of how many boxes of unneeded items I’ve given away in the past three years.  I haven’t missed any of it.

Every so often I look at spaces I’ve already decluttered with new eyes and see more that I can give away.  This has happened several times with my bookshelves.  I used to think that I could never own too many books.  Now I see that I was keeping every book I ever read as a trophy to show off.  Visitors to my home could see how well-read I am.  However, some of those books I never liked, and others I liked well enough but had no interest in ever reading again.  Why not let go of them so that someone else could read them instead of leaving them on a shelf to collect dust?

Similarly, I always welcomed books as gifts for my children.  For one thing, new books meant I didn’t have to read the same stories over and over again.  For another, I thought that shelves full of books in their rooms would guarantee that they would love to read.  Instead, it means I read drivel to my children all the time because well-meaning friends and relatives are always giving them the latest stories about Sofia the First, Spider-Man, and Tinker Bell, stories that Disney cranks out to make more money without much concern for the quality of the storytelling.  Their shelves are so jam packed with books that they don’t even see the amazing stories with beautiful illustrations like Miss Rumphius and Blueberries for Sal.  More books are not better.  Good books are better.

One book I’m glad to have on my shelf is Clutterfree with Kids by Joshua Becker.  I heard about this book about a year ago and looked it up on Amazon. After reading the first few pages,  I ordered it immediately.  Now that I had decluttered so many of my own possessions, the clutter from the rest of my family was starting to irk me.  I was hoping to find some tips on how to cope with all the toys, books, and DVDs, but I found so much more.  I found a whole new way of looking at life.

When their children were five and two, Joshua Becker and his wife decided to embrace minimalism, intentionally living with fewer possessions.  As I read about all the benefits they had found in letting go of stuff in order to focus more on relationships and experiences, I knew I wanted that for my family too.  The Beckers do not live in a tiny house, and they haven’t limited themselves to 50 or 100 possessions.  They have espoused what Becker calls “rational minimalism,” finding a balance that works for you and your family.  It’s about making intentional decisions about what to buy instead of impulse purchases.  It’s about talking back to the commercials that want us to believe that our value comes from what we own, or maybe consuming less media so that we’re not exposed to those commercials in the first place.

Since reading that book, I have discovered Becker’s blog, becomingminimalist.com, which has inspired me to give away even more.  I limit myself to my own personal possessions or anything I would consider family property like kitchen items.  I don’t go into my children’s rooms and take away their stuffed animals, but I have set some limits for them.  We have a box in the living room for coloring books and when it is full, we have to choose some to recycle before we get news ones.  We have one shelf for DVDs, one small drawer for stickers, and so on.

I keep hoping the the rest of my family will be inspired by my efforts and join me in my journey toward simplifying our lives by eliminating clutter.  My children are little, and it’s natural for them to wish for toys that they think will be lots of fun, but I want them to learn gratitude, to appreciate their blessings, and it seems to me that it’s not easy to appreciate a pile of cheap plastic toys, especially when 12771964_10153609704343172_8825408985912921146_othe pile keeps growing larger.  Little by little, I hope I can lead the way down a new path, one that is full of the joy of new experiences shared with each other because I would rather spend a summer afternoon splashing in the kiddie pool than sorting clutter into decorative baskets.

The FlyLady

Do you ever feel so overwhelmed by your to-do list that you don’t know where to start?  Maybe you just completely check out and start channel surfing or scrolling through your Facebook feed or clicking through a slide show of “52 Comforting Slow Cooker Recipes.”  Would you believe me if I told you that it was your perfectionism that was causing the problem?  I thought that sounded crazy at first.  How could I be a perfectionist if my house is a mess, there’s a mountain of laundry waiting to done, bills that need paying, and who knows what else while I’m re-reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban?  It boils down to this:  if I feel as if I don’t have the time to do everything and do it perfectly, I give up.

I have been struggling to write this blog post for weeks.  There is just so much I want to tell you about the FlyLady and how her influence has changed my life that I hardly know where to begin or how to narrow down the topic.

First of all, you probably don’t know who the FlyLady is. Her real name is Marla Cilley, and she has made it her mission in life to help others establish housekeeping routines that will bring peace to their homes and families. Are you thinking, “What, this woman teaches you how to clean your house?  I know how to clean my house!” Well, yes, if you browse her website, it might look to you at first as if it’s all about how to clean your house, but that’s merely the tip of the iceberg.  I know from my own experience, that once you start reading her daily emails, her voice gets inside your head.  She will influence you to view almost every aspect of your life differently.

I have decided, however, that I can’t use this post to teach you the FlyLady’s system.  That’s her job if you’re interested in finding out what she has to say.  My task is to describe what I have learned from her beyond how to “swish and swipe” my bathroom or shine my kitchen sink.

So, what has she taught me?  For one thing, I’ve learned that I am not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the daily tasks required in caring for a home and family.  As a “FlyBaby,” I am a member of a community of (mostly) women who have had similar struggles, and now we can support each other by sharing our stories.  In this community I find stay-at-home moms like me, working moms, single moms, young, single women, newlyweds, retired empty-nesters, widows, and even a teenage girl who lost her mom and has used the FlyLady’s advice to help her father manage their home and take care of her younger siblings.

Most importantly, I have discovered that my perfectionism is the source of my problem.  Perfectionism holds me back.  It is better to do something even if I can’t do everything.  Only a few minutes available to fold laundry?  Well, I don’t have to fold those shirts as if I worked at the Gap.  Good enough is good enough.  Laundry that is folded and put away is not going to wrinkle as much as laundry sitting in a heap in the dryer.  In letting go of my perfectionism little by little, I find that I can keep my house my way.  The FlyLady emphasizes that we don’t have to scrub our floors on our hands and knees the way our grandmothers did.  A quick mop with a Swiffer gets the floor cleaner than it was before.  Dusting doesn’t have to take all morning.  I can dash through the house with my feather duster in ten minutes, and I have blessed my home.

One of my favorite things about the FlyLady is that she refers to cleaning as “blessing our homes” to help us see the value in the work we do.  These tasks don’t have to be tedious chores if we do them with love for ourselves and our families.  Even if I lived alone, I would deserve a clean home.  I wish I had believed that when I was single.  Who knows what I might have accomplished in my twenties if I had washed my dishes every night instead of playing Free Cell or watching reruns of Law and Order:  SVU?  Just cleaning up after myself would have created so much more peace in my little apartment.  At least the lesson is sinking in now.  I have cleared enough clutter out of my home and my mind that I was able to start this blog.

Having routines to keep my home running smoothly sets me free to enjoy more of my life.  I don’t have to feel guilty about playing with my children or taking a few minutes for myself because there is so much I “should” be doing instead.  I also have more time for family outings because I don’t have to spend all day Saturday cleaning the house.  I’ve been doing a little bit each day, and my Saturday task of cleaning the glass and mirrors takes only a few minutes.

You’re probably wondering why Marla Cilley calls herself “the FlyLady.”  Her name originally came from her love of fly fishing, but it also gets right to the heart of her message.  She uses “FLY” as an acronym for “finally loving yourself.”  I have to love myself enough to realize that I deserve a well-kept home.  A clean home isn’t just for guests.  It isn’t even just for my family.  It has to be for me.  I deserve clean floors, a clean bathtub, and shiny mirrors as much as any guest in my home does.  I shouldn’t have to look at piles of clutter every day.  It takes time to build the habits to keep my home looking good all the time.  It is definitely still a work in progress for me, but I’m on a path that is bringing me more peace and joy with each baby step I take.  Check her out for yourself here!

Social Anxiety Disorder

One of the most life-changing events I have experienced was a diagnosis.  If you are at least as old as I am, I’m sure you remember when pharmaceutical companies first started advertising prescription medications on television.  It was weird.  We were hearing about diseases we never knew existed and wondering if they could be real.

One day I saw a commercial for Paxil.  It showed a woman staring out her window with deep longing, but she just couldn’t go out and face all the people out there in the world.  I saw her face, and I knew exactly how she felt.  Oh, how I wanted to go out and take a walk for some fresh air and exercise, but anxiety overwhelmed me.  I couldn’t do it.  On the rare occasions when I managed to overcome that anxiety and take an evening walk around the small town where I lived at that time, I really couldn’t enjoy myself.  I felt as if there were a person looking out of each window I passed, not each house, each window, watching me and waiting for me to make a fool of myself.  How could I possibly embarrass myself while taking a walk, you ask?  My biggest fears were that my shoe laces might come untied and I would have to stop and tie them or I might trip on a crack in the sidewalk.  Can you imagine how hard it would be to live your life if thoughts like this were weighing you down?

It was the fall of 2000, and I knew from a commercial that I had social anxiety disorder.  I didn’t really know what that meant, but I knew I had the same thing that the actress was portraying in that commercial.  I talked it over on the phone with a friend who lived several states away.  She helped me make a list of my symptoms, and she encouraged me to call my nurse practitioner’s office.  It took a few months to work up the courage to do that.  I was, of course, afraid of being judged by medical professionals whose job it is to help people.

When I finally got myself into the exam room with my nurse practitioner, I handed her the written list my friend and I had come up with.  She looked at it and simply said, “Yes, this is social anxiety disorder.  How do you teach if you feel like this?”  A good question.  For me, the hard parts of teaching were interacting with my colleagues and my students’ parents.  Standing in front of a room full of teenagers is completely different from the situations that cause me anxiety.  First of all, I’m presented to them as an authority figure:  I’m the teacher.  In addition, I’m the expert in the room.  I know more about my content area than my students do.

So, I started on the lowest dose of Paxil, and for about two weeks I felt like I had the flu while my body adjusted to the medication.  After that I still had side effects for the entire six-year period I took it.  I was always sleepy, or maybe I should say I could sleep at any time if I had the opportunity.  I was alert enough to go about my daily business but if the opportunity presented itself for a nap, I took it!  I experienced a wave of nausea every morning around 9:30.  It passed pretty quickly, and I kept peppermint candies in my desk to alleviate it.  Only once do I remember my students noticing that I didn’t look well.  There were other side effects as well, but I’ll spare you the details.

Why was I willing to put up with these discomforts?  I have two reasons.  First, my diagnosis changed the way I viewed myself.  I used to think I was full of character flaws.  I was stingy and selfish, and I procrastinated on important tasks.  Now I could forgive myself.  I wasn’t being stingy when I didn’t contribute to a retirement gift for someone at work.  I was actually paralyzed by the fear of being judged.  I didn’t know what was the “right” amount to give.  What were other people contributing?  Three dollars?  Ten dollars?  Twenty dollars?  Would I seem cheap or ridiculously generous?  So I never gave anything.  I discovered that there were self-help books about social anxiety disorder, and they taught me strategies for managing my anxiety, but they also taught me that there was a neurobiological basis to my problem that had nothing to do with my moral character.

My second reason for putting up with the side effects was that the medication opened me up to a much fuller life.  I will never forget the moment I knew that my life was changing.  I had just arrived at work and had stepped into the office to check my mailbox.  One of my colleagues was at the copier and didn’t look up when I walked in, but I said “Hi, Tony,” as I walked past him.  Amazement washed over me.  Tony hadn’t spoken to me first.  He hadn’t even looked at me, but I didn’t hesitate to greet him.  I didn’t have an internal debate about what to do.  It was natural to say hi.  How many times had I walked through the halls of that school, agonizing about whether I should say hello to a fellow teacher who didn’t greet me first, who didn’t make eye contact with me?

About a year and a half later I went on my first date.  Yup, my first date ever.  I was 27.

Of course, Paxil didn’t solve all my problems, but it gave me a chance to practice social interactions and learn strategies that help me to manage my anxiety symptoms.  After six years I had started a new job, bought a house, and met the man I would marry.  I felt ready to try things on my own, so my doctor helped me wean myself from the medication.  I will always be shy, and I see no reason to apologize for that.  I still experience social anxiety, but I know how to manage the symptoms.  Making phone calls is particularly difficult for me, but I take a couple of deep breaths before I dial the number and hold onto something to ground myself physically, and I make the call.  Well, to be honest I might procrastinate for a couple of days first if the matter isn’t too pressing, but I don’t beat myself up about that.  Instead, I praise myself once it’s done.  I don’t tell myself I’m being lazy or neglectful; I tell myself I’m gathering my strength.  Treating myself kindly leads to more success, and each little victory over anxiety makes me stronger.

Mrs. Eckles

For my first blog post I’d like to recognize the significance of the woman who, more than anyone else, taught me how to write.  Mrs. Eckles was my ninth grade English teacher.

About two weeks before I started ninth grade, my family had moved from Newark, New York, where we had lived for seven years, to Downingtown, Pennsylvania.  I was 14 years old and starting at a new school that was considerably larger than my old school.  I was miserable.  First period was English.  One of the first things Mrs. Eckles asked us to do was find a homework buddy and share our telephone numbers with each other.  She wanted us to have someone we could call for help with our homework.  As everyone else in the room greeted old friends and paired up with a buddy, I sat in the front row and looked nervously all around me.  Mrs. Eckles approached me and quietly asked me if I was a new student.  She found a nice girl who was happy to be my homework buddy.  Mrs. Eckles had smoothly helped me make my first acquaintance.

Later that fall when the school held parent-teacher conferences, my mom asked each of my teachers if they were aware that I was new to the school.  Each of my teachers had been completely unaware of this except for Mrs. Eckles.  Not only had she noticed right away but also she had remembered it and looked out for me throughout the year.

Ninth grade was a difficult year for me.  English was no exception.  My new classmates had had much more formal grammar and writing instruction than I had had.  We wrote a lot that year.  Mrs. Eckles taught us the structure of an essay by first asking us to write paragraphs with a thesis statement, body, and conclusion.  Gradually, we learned how to develop our thoughts into a five paragraph essay.  Along the way, she also taught us skills like using transitions, varying sentence length, and varying sentence structure.  She taught me how to punctuate compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences.  In the process, I learned how to recognize, correct, and avoid run-ons and fragments.

Now, that may sound dry and boring, but it wasn’t to me.  I knew I was improving as a writer.  I knew that Mrs. Eckles was ultimately teaching me how to think about literature and how to express myself clearly.  My greatest moment in that very difficult year came on January 26, 1990.  Mrs. Eckles passed back essays that day.  As she handed me my paper, she told me I had “a sincere, natural writing style that is a joy to read.”

Mrs. Eckles used to say that when she retired she was going to write a grammar textbook because she had never found one that she liked.  As an English teacher, I have looked through many catalogues and searched online for a book by Ann Eckles, but I have never found one.  If I ever did, I would spend my own money to have a set of them for my classroom.  I use some of her strategies with my students, and I have shared them with my husband, who is also an English teacher, but I can’t remember everything she did with us.  Oh, how I wish I had saved everything in my red dot folder, a plain manila folder with a red sticker on the tab in which we kept all of our writing lessons.

With Mrs. Eckles on my mind as I prepared to launch this blog, I decided to search for her a few days ago.  I found her obituary.  She passed away last summer at the age of 86.  God bless her for her kindness to a lonely 14-year-old girl.  Her legacy will live on every time I teach my students to punctuate a compound sentence by using “the triplets.”