“You are not a drop in the ocean. You are an entire ocean in a drop.” -Rumi
One of my children ran across the sand and plopped down next to me. I was guarding our belongings and being an overprotective mom, counting my children in the waves. One, two, three. I do this everywhere. In stores. Playgrounds. Especially in the water. One, two, three– all accounted for, safe, alive. I wanted to be lulled to sleep in my chair under the hot sun, but my mom instincts kept me on guard, even as their grandfather was out there with them, and an actual lifeguard on duty nearby. But at least now it was only two still in the water, with one next to me. Safe. Easily contained. Alive.
She scampered off after a few minutes, joining her brothers back in the ocean. That’s how it goes. You can’t keep them contained and protected forever.
Another school year ended, quickly, somehow, after the longest school year ever. When I started teaching, it was on the cusp of a technological revolution in education, back when we still did paper scantron sheets for attendance and shared one LCD projector for the entire department and overhead projectors were still a focal point in a classroom. I feel fortunate to have straddled two lives– one where we were children before screens, and the other where I got to be part of the OG that used AOL chat rooms. Still, I couldn’t predict just how much of a role technology would play in our lives. It never crossed my mind that schools would close, that a virus would ravage the world, and that we’d be teaching from our homes.
There are things you don’t expect or prepare for in life. No matter how much I’ve planned and worked to protect my own heart, and no matter how much I try to protect my children from suffering, I have yet to find a path that leaves us unscathed. I never in a million years would have thought I’d be a young widow. I never in a million years thought I’d live through a pandemic. I never imagined walking around with masks on, life shutting down, spending an entire school year doing business on our computers. And yet, in many ways, everything I’ve ever done in my life also prepared me for these moments of crises. We’re all conditioned to run away from suffering, but I’m starting to think suffering is an essential part of being human.
The end of a school year and a summer break is always a sort of reset button. If you had a bad year or a mediocre year or a whatever year, at least you can take a few months off and start over the next year with a little more wisdom and different circumstances, however subtle they may be. This year’s summer break feels particularly momentous, marking the fact that we got through the most grueling school year ever, and somehow we are still here. The anticipation we have for the new school year is high. A re-do of sorts. An attempt to get back on track with the life we had before COVID-19 derailed it. On some level we know that previous life is gone, but we still grasp the hope of a reset. A chance to have a better year.
I like resets. I like New Year’s Day and I love making resolutions for a new calendar year. I like my birthday and the promise of a new year of existence, and all of the things I hope to do in my fleeting time. I like Mondays and the potential it brings to get my exercise started early in the week, increasing my chances of hitting my goals. I like mornings, starting a day with a new chance of success. I like the end of a school year and the beginning of a new one– an opportunity to try again.
Yet, I know not everyone agrees with the idea that resets will necessarily bring us better versions of our lives. New Year resolutions notoriously fail. Change does not miraculously appear. New school years do not erase our challenges.
I don’t think growth evolves out of any one thing, but rather is something that coagulates when a lot of different variables work in concert. Growth happens when we stand nearby in a state of constant reflection, tweaking, analyzing, adding, realigning, subtracting from the variables that impose themselves into our lives, and the ones that we choose. Growth, like happiness, is not a destination. It’s a way of living.
Teaching and parenting in a pandemic was a rollercoaster ride. If I had to summarize it in one word, I’d probably choose “tedious.” Yet, by the second semester, it had gotten less stressful, and more annoying chasing down kids who wouldn’t do asynchronous assignments, trying to muster the energy and stamina in my depleted well to share with others. It took time to cope with our change of cirumcstances, to manage the life we did not choose, to become strategic about the numerous alarms ringing on my phone telling us when to log in to Zoom, ongoing uncertainty, stir crazy emotions, and pervasive fatigue. We were all thrust into a situation for which we did not have the skills, learning on the go, suffering from growing pains and a range of emotions– denial, anger, sadness, grief, loneliness, forlornness. It was uncharted territory for everyone.
But here we are. Stronger because of it.
By the end of the school year, I began to think there might be some aspects of the experience we would miss. In my previous life, we were never home. We almost never opened the blinds. Never spent time in the backyard. Our garden was often filled with weeds, and our lives were a constant flurry of Point A to Point B to Point C, day after day. When we were forced to stay home, we had to find entertainment around our house. For example, we bought milkweed for monarch butterflies and checked every day for caterpillars and pupae. We took walks around the neighborhood. Bought rollerblades and did laps around the block. We kept track of the volunteer flowers that popped up in garden beds, marveling at their growth each day. One of the last meetings I had over Google Meet was on my patio, watching monarchs flutter around my garden as I answered questions from an interviewer about civic learning in my classroom. I sat with the realization that I likely (hopefully?) wouldn’t be doing *this* again in my career. But there were butterflies. Cats sleeping on my desk as I worked. Eating lunch with my kids. I’d miss those moments. In anything that we do, there is always a silver lining when we look for it.
And there was a lot of growth. I was proud of my curriculum this year. Proud of civic learning projects my students worked on. I was impressed by how my students coped in an unimaginable year, many of them choosing unconventional paths and schedules that didn’t always measure up to our traditional metrics of success.
Dealing with my own children at home changed me as a teacher. Overhearing the kindergarten teacher’s incredible patience when conducting class on Zoom (which was often like herding fleas), inspired me to show the same grace with others– no matter how old they are. Witnessing the unsavory moments, watching how it affected me as a parent, my children as learners, our family dynamic– this will forever leave an imprint on who I am as a teacher. It’s not often that we get to witness what is on the receiving end. Silently, I apologized to anyone I’ve ever lost my patience with, assignments that may have caused undue stress, because truly, we don’t really know what is going on on the receiving end.
As life settles back into a shifting new normal, I worry that we will go back to all of the traditions we were conditioned to expect. That we won’t have the energy or courage to choose a new trajectory, because change and growth and risk-taking inevitably cause discomfort. I worry that we will choose the path of less resistance instead, and that all of the lessons we learned will go to waste because it’s difficult to make big decisions in life when we’ve never seen it before.
Thanks to the vaccine, declining numbers, and airline credit from the beginning of the pandemic, my family chose to reset in Hawaii after I got out of school. Easy, safer than other places, and an outdoor type of vacation. The beach. A reset.
I always tell my kids: nobody can stay in a bad mood at the ocean.
We were swimming at Hapuna Beach when I noticed an older woman with what looked to be her grandchild. The grandmother was fit, holding a boogie board and going out for waves. She was certainly not the kind of grandmother I’ve been conditioned to expect in society. I thought: that’s what I want to be when I’m a senior citizen. Out there having fun. Fit and healthy. Taking in life, not sitting in my chair watching it pass me by.
Later, I was reading a work-related book about culturally responsive literacy in the classroom. It mentioned mentor texts. These are examples of writing that students can read and re-read and study when writing their own papers. They are models. Something you can duplicate and reimagine, a starting point. Inspiration. Guidance.
I thought about the grandma with her boogie board. A human mentor text.
Sometimes I bemoan the fact that I didn’t have mentor humans that could have been profound in my life. If only I had a writer mentor, maybe I’d be a lot further in my pursuits by now? Or someone to teach me how to prevent wrinkles? Do something with my unruly hair? Teach me about careers and hobbies I couldn’t even conceptualize?
There were some. Bits and pieces from people who I learned from, watched, sometimes imitated. But not a lot of variety. Not many trails being blazed. Not very many people I can think of, not in my immediate circles.
Mostly I feel like I learned a lot from the people who I didn’t want to imitate. My memories are clearer about these people, specifically the characteristics and choices I never wanted to emulate. Honestly, these examples have been tremendously important in shaping my worldview.
But mentors –true mentors– are more important, in my opinion, because they open our eyes to the things we may not imagine on our own. They can show us what does not exist in our bubble.
I try to soak up everything around me, looking for mentor humans and mentor texts. I have a bookmark tab on my computer that says “to read/learn.” I cut things out. Read books. Observe old ladies at the beach, trying to figure out what kind of old lady I’ll become. I’m constantly looking and listening, because I still need all the mentors I can get. Even a tiny ant can be my mentor.
Resets help. Mentors help.
But in the end, it’s what you do with these little things in life. The bits of inspiration. The sinking experiences you’d rather forget.
And maybe that’s the biggest obstacle: letting things go. Watching them sink. Being okay with what sinks to the bottom. Learning what to keep, and what to forget about in all that we encounter. If we spent as much time working on ourselves right now as we did dwelling on our pasts, bemoaning what we did or didn’t have, I think the future payoff would likely be greater.
I’ve been reading “Ocean” by Kenneth Tanaka. It’s an introduction to Jodo-Shinshu Buddhism in America. He wrote that Buddhism isn’t a tool for actual suffering, but rather existential suffering.
I thought that was interesting, because I think we’re all at some level looking for a magic bullet answer to our human despair. A solution. Something that will erase everything bad and hand us happiness and joy.
But it doesn’t work that way.
Things like Buddhism, resets, mentors, and such, are only tools. They can just help ease the experience. Give us a boost. Be a flotation device in a vast ocean of life. In the end, it won’t save us from bad things happening. That part of life ebbs and flows. There are no clean beginnings or ends. Nothing will stay the same– we are in a constant state of impermanence. The best we can do is learn how to navigate. Learn how to not drown and save ourselves. When to catch a good wave, and what to do when one crashes over our head. How to be cautious but also bold with opportunities, always straddling a fine line between joy and suffering.
I was listening to a podcast– 70 Over 70– and the episode was an interview with Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun best known for her role in “Dead Man Walking” She mentions flow, which she says, “…you do and you don’t do. Just like here’s an athlete that knows how to do the balance beam…jumps up on it. If you’re figuring every step with your mind, you’re going to fall off that beam real real quick [Mhmm] or a pianist that goes to play a piece. It’s a brain straight into fingers. It’s not the thinking process of bringing it through your rational consciousness.” She mentions throughout the interview flow. Things coming and going. The importance of being present, so when it is your turn to die, you can do so presently.
This is one of our biggest fears. Death. Loss. The finality of it all.
Of course, the flow contains much more than us drifting on autopilot. Every step we took. Every reset. Mentors. Good times and bad times, and what we learned from each. Our choices. Instincts. Feelings. The currents we could not control.
Sister Helen talks about “so much of life that’s simply bigger than trying to figure things out rationally.”
Kenneth Tanaka, a Buddhist minister, wrote in his book Ocean, “we are a product of many influences that create who we are and how we feel. As waves are part of the ocean, we are part of the rest of the universe.”
I imagine both are somehow referring to the same thing– the vastness of the universe– the inability to separate ourselves from it all. Our interconnectedness. The impermanence. A flow that pulls us in various directions. Being a part of something we can not fully conceptualize.
Maybe we shouldn’t call reset opportunities “resets”. They don’t really clear the count for us, do they? They don’t lead to miraculous discoveries. Maybe they are simply pauses. A momentary reprieve. Temporary life boats to help us float instead of struggling against currents. An opportunity to gather our senses and move forward in a state of calm.
But eventually, we have to get back into the water. Ride the waves. Get knocked out. And the knockouts– especially the knockouts– will teach us great strength and resilience. This is where we gain wisdom, which ultimately helps us make the best out of this flow.
I guess the only other option is to stay on the shoreline, a bystander. Watching life pass you by.
We went snorkeling yesterday. My sons were fearless, paddling away from me as I counted off heads. One, two, three. My daughter’s mask fogged up as tears welled in her eyes, too afraid to let go of me. She is a good swimmer. Maybe better than the boys. There was no reason for this fear, other than her own existential suffering. I let her cling to me, seeing my own fearful, cautious self in her. I coaxed her to give it a try– put her face in the water. Trust her snorkle gear, her flotation belt, the lifeguards nearby. I pointed out the parrotfish with rainbow coloring. Nobody wants to miss a rainbow. We paddled alongside each other for a while, until finally, with the splash of her flippers kicking against the cold water, she broke free and began to explore the teeming life in the coral reef on her own.
On vacation, I think I am happy, but am I? This is a matter constantly up for scrutiny in my brain. What is and isn’t happiness. What I have and don’t have. A constant balancing act between the stressors in life and moments basking in the sunlight on a Hawaiian beach. I do a lot of people watching in Hawaii. I notice the tension between couples. The stress in the mother’s eyes herding children from here and there. There are happy people, there are unhappy people, there is everything in between.
In the earlier years without my husband, I used to be very angry about witnessing these other couples and families. It is difficult not to think about the fact that they get to be together and I get to be a single mom with my fatherless children. Sometimes, I still feel a tinge of “wish he were here.” But mostly I don’t feel this way anymore. One of the tests I designed for myself was a simple question whenever I felt jealousy or anger or sadness creeping into my consciousness.
Would I trade lives?
The answer has always been no.
If I wouldn’t trade lives, then there is nothing to covet. Nothing to make me feel sad or less than, nothing to want. Nothing to evoke anger.
This is my flow.
Everything up until now in my life has made me who I am. That former version of myself is gone. Unrecognizable. A beta version. It doesn’t matter who I used to be, but it made me who I am today. In the flow of life, right now is what should occupy my mind. Right now is all I can control. Right now is what matters.
I think I am happy, because I am no longer unhappy about the things I can’t control or lost or long past, and that seems like existential success.
A few days ago it was World Oceans Day. While I’m spending my days relaxing at the beach, decompressing from a difficult year, it’s not lost on me that the oceans– which bring us considerable joy– do not receive the mindfulness and respect and advocacy from us that they deserve. My students often do their civic learning projects on sustainability. I think it’s easier for us to ignore the problems of our oceans when we aren’t required to look at it square in the eye. Being a part of the flow isn’t about letting others worry about these problems. The flow requires us to be engaged, make good choices with what we know right now, and to try to make the flow a place where every living organism can not only survive, but thrive. It takes reflection and action verbs. We must *do* something. So I leave you with some ways we can all do our part to save our oceans, in honor of the great pause it has afforded me and my family, and all of the other people who have the privilege of experiencing the way a beach makes your soul feel free in the heaviness of life.
*Reduce plastic use and look for alternatives. For example, ditch the plastic straws and grocery bags. Opt for reusable water bottles.
*Educate yourself. Listen to the experts and leading authorities about these issues. Vote to support research.
*Reduce our carbon footprint. There are many ways to do this. Maybe pick one small thing you can start doing.
*Protect ecosystems. Support sanctuaries. In Girl Scouts we used to have a saying about leaving things better than we found them. Don’t leave your footprint in these places.
*Avoid unsustainable fishing practices.
*Vote for people who will fight to protect our oceans.
“At the beach, life is different. Time doesn’t move hour to hour, but mood to moment. We live by the currents, plan by the tides and follow the sun.” -Unknown