The Calm Before a Storm

Photo by Nandhu Kumar on

A few weeks ago, I entered the gym where my daughter plays her basketball games right as teams were ending and teams were coming, the sound of multiple basketballs bouncing off the gym floor as kids scrambled to make a few hoops before the next games, and coaches in team huddles debriefing their wins and losses. It was another whirlwind of a weekend for me, which I seem to have too many of lately. The kind where everything on the itinerary feels like a worthy cause, but I still end up feeling like I’m suffocating the morning of, looking down the barrel of a day that is about to wring me dry.  

As I looked for a place to sit in the gym, I noticed a familiar face in the crowd. I thought maybe I had seen him at temple. Embarrassingly there are still people whose names I don’t know or haven’t remembered. I used to be so good at remembering every name and face, and now I find myself often in that murky territory of “vaguely familiar, can’t quite place them.” I try to forgive myself and not blame age, because the truth is I come across many people in a year because of the nature of my job as a teacher, and that’s a lot for one human brain to retain. 

I happened to pass by the vaguely familiar man again, and this time I was close enough to read his sweatshirt. 

And it came to me. 

We taught together once upon a time, during my second year of teaching, right before I started at the school where I am today. It was a middle school forty minutes away, and it was a hellacious year that I have mostly tried to forget.

He remembered me, somehow. There I was, 17 years older, explaining to someone who knew me by my maiden name why I was at a Japanese-American basketball league for kids, and when it came to my Japanese-American husband, disclosing that he had actually passed away. It plunged me into deep reflection about my life then and my life now, and all of those chapters that transpired in between, and the unsettling feeling of these memories simultaneously feeling like they were a hundred years ago, and also maybe they just happened yesterday?

I had been a traveling teacher that school year. I went room to room teaching four different subjects to squirrel energy without a single place to call my own. Not even a cupboard for my belongings. It wasn’t ideal, but they gave me my first contract and I was able to finish my credential while getting paid when most people had to do unpaid student teaching. I kept telling myself I was lucky. Suck it up, Buttercup. It could be worse. 

But it was a terrible year that included two rounds of the stomach flu that knocked me out for over a week each time, other teachers who hated that I was using their room and weren’t afraid to let me know, and a paranoid and micromanaging principal who chewed sunflower seeds while he was talking to you and invading your bubble. Every day I spent my conference period in the library because I had nowhere else to go, and it reminded me of when I was in the 7th grade and didn’t know anyone at my new school, so I sat alone under a tree at lunch reading Baby-sitter Club books. In the library is where I met Ann, the Japanese-American librarian who talked to me about things like having Christmas trees in every room of her house and how she used to be a hall monitor at her high school in Los Angeles, where she met her husband. She’d ask me questions too, and I felt as if at least one person on that campus cared about my existence. She was a little bit of light during that terrible year. 

Needless to say, on the last day of school I threw my rolling cart into the dumpster and swore off that place forever. Which didn’t need a lot of swearing off, because I was in a temporary position and they would not be bringing me back. 

That summer, I went on a long trip abroad, traveling throughout Europe by myself and ended in Israel, where I experienced the 2006 conflict with Lebanon. I learned what their emergency sirens sounded like, and there were many times when I was visiting with family and suddenly the wailing siren would ring out, like a slowed version of an ambulance siren we were familiar with in the United States. When the siren went off, we had forty seconds to move away from the windows and prepare for a possible hit. One day a katyusha landed a block away from where I was visiting with a cousin and her small children. The ground shook like an earthquake and there was a burning smell. I sat on the couch next to my cousin’s elderly neighbor, who was scared out of her mind. My cousin is Palestinian. The elderly neighbor was a Holocaust survivor. I could see the numbers tattooed on her arm from where I was sitting. I remember asking, “You’ve had scarier experiences, right?” 

I missed a job interview because I was in Israel. If only Zoom had existed, I wonder now. My mentor recommended me for the job to the school’s department chair and it seemed like it was almost a done deal, but then the school wanted to hire someone immediately and couldn’t wait for my return, so the job was given to someone else.

I applied to dozens and dozens of schools in the interim, only to watch the school year start and pass with no prospects. I remember being so depressed about it, waiting in despair as I submitted my resume to every possible lead and going to interviews. Depressed about my life in general, which seemed to be going nowhere. I had even begun researching where I could adopt a kid from Indonesia like Angelina Jolie did if I hadn’t met someone in the next couple of years. If I could write a letter to my younger self, it would say, “Girl, you’re only 23! Chill!” 

It just so happened that the school whose interview I missed had an opening once they saw their enrollment numbers, and as fate would have it I got hired in October. Then the opportunities began to roll in, and I turned down a few other job offers that followed. I went from having nothing, to having lots of choices and a gig I didn’t want to give up. Truly, when it rains, it pours. 

A new chapter began. I had a nice classroom and nice students, teaching in what would become my forever school in a nice area. Then I met the teacher in the classroom next door, and later we got married. We had three kids. Our lives were dotted with daycare drop-offs and pickups, diapers, and Costco. We brainstormed our hopes and dreams. I remember being so naive back then without a clue about what could happen in worst case scenarios. It was glorious to be so stupid. And then, the chapter closed with a hard thud. He unexpectedly died of an aortic aneurysm and left me behind with a 13-month-old, 3-year-old, and a 6-year-old. 

Many chapters have been written and closed since then. Lots of tears have been shed. Much panic seeped into my bones, flooding my insides with despair. The grief felt like it would crush me to death. My responsibilities felt impossible.

But also, there has been an abundance of joy and smiles, thrills and experiences, more hope and new dreams and new beginnings.

It has all gone so fast, just like all of the grown-ups warned me about. My baby is a proper boy who plays basketball and has existential thoughts about life. My little girl, who could not talk in sentences when her father passed away, is creative and sassy, hardworking and determined. My oldest is in junior high school, easygoing and curious, and sometimes remarkably like his father. I am deep in a new chapter of parenting, one in which I have no experience with my husband. I’ve pursued new dreams. I am not the same person who was married to that man.

My friend asked me recently if I missed Kenneth. Yes, yes I do. Some things, no. But most things, yes. Now we are almost seven years from the day he died. Seven flippin’ years. That will be as long as I was married to him. In many ways, I still feel robbed. The only difference is my skin has thickened enough not to let other people and things trigger me. The tender feelings are harder to ignite. But it’s true that I do still feel sadness about it. I sit alone at these basketball games watching my fatherless children play, and I most definitely—every single time— think about what it would be like to have him there too, sharing in the delight, comparing notes, cheering for our kids from a source of love only the two of us had for them. But now I’m good at living with chronic sadness. You learn to contain it. Joy creeps back into your life, and it starts to outpace sadness, and really that’s the balance you want anyway. More joy. Less sadness. You know it’s true, so you slowly release your tight grip on sadness. 

And it can make you fervent about living well. Maximizing happiness. I’ve been working hard these past seven years to build my resilience. This year I’m on a roll reading books about parenting and mindset and personal growth and investing—everything—because I know I can do even better and continue evolving as a person. I recently read The Subtle Art of Not Giving an F*$% by Mark Manson. He has a lot of inspirational nuggets in this book. I was inspired to read it after I saw a picture of Congresswoman Porter reading while Republicans struggled to vote for their Speaker of the House and everyone was stuck in session. I didn’t know what to expect. Sometimes these books with catchy names deliver a book full of air. But this one had a lot of wisdom. The author argues that life is neverending problems, and we have to find the problems we enjoy solving. He says we must learn to sustain the pain we’ve chosen, and to ask ourselves, “For what purpose am I suffering?” Working on values that are internally-based, and developing strong boundaries are important. 

Life is full of problems. Just this past week my water heater died, the shower was plugged again, and somebody accidentally locked the cat in a room at night and we didn’t have the key and none of the YouTube videos were successfully helping me pick the lock. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. When there aren’t any problems, I feel anxiety knowing that one will surely pop up like the boogeyman waiting around the corner. 

I want to get better. I want to worry less, enjoy more, and be fully present. There are values I want to strengthen: gratitude, honest expression, calming presence, restraint, and balance. There are boundaries I want to fortify.

I listened to Spare on Audible this month with Prince Harry’s British accent narrating. It was a fascinating account of grief and life, and my takeaway was that the Royals really aren’t as interesting as I assumed they should be. They have a lot of the same human problems wrapped up in maids and castles. The family has problems. They bicker. They don’t listen to each other. They ruin relationships. They hold grudges. There is rivalry. Familiar stuff, right? And here he is, a well-known prince, also grappling with remembering his values and putting up boundaries, living with grief, wanting to do better. I like when Harry referenced Much Ado About Nothing with this quote from Conrad: “Can you make no use of your discontent? Can’t you put your unhappiness to some use?”

This past weekend I was dreading my Sunday. I had to lead mindfulness and give a dharma talk. I still feel new and terrible at these tasks, and since I’m the type who likes to do a good job, I stressed and stressed. After mindfulness, I’d have to go to temple service, and then I was supposed to substitute in the 7th grade dharma school class. That would be followed by two basketball games, Girl Scout cookie drop-offs, and squeezing in household obligations before going to bed at a reasonable time. Another whirlwind of a day to cap an extremely busy weekend. I was anxious and unhappy that morning, but by the end of the day I felt like everything had actually gone well. It had only felt insurmountable in my head. We ended the evening at the batting cages in the rain and eating pizza. It was fun.

The next day, we received a thank you note from a new person who attended the mindfulness service that I led. They thanked us for our warm welcome and for helping them relieve the stress that they carried from a rough week. So many times I feel like I am the storm, churning, thrashing, waves crashing. Life can feel hectic and overwhelming on a lot of days. I’m an only parent; it comes with the job title. Nobody fully understands what this means unless they are an only parent too. Even on our best days, the load we carry is always heavy. And I carried that load into the mindfulness session that morning. In fact I remember leaving my house wanting to cry, I was so stressed out. But to hear that I lessened the load of someone else’s stressful week? That I helped make them feel better? That changes how I carry my load.  

I read an NPR article entitled “My Unsung Hero” profiling Jeff Fister’s story about getting into a car accident with his child. He said he remembered a woman approaching. She was wearing scrubs, so she was either on her way to work or coming home. Most people would have continued on during rush hour, too consumed with their own priorities and not stopping. Jeff said that the woman held his baby while he made phone calls and sorted out what just happened, and then when he settled down, she handed the baby back and quietly disappeared. A small gesture, but her help eased his trauma during that brief moment, leaving a lasting impact. She was a calming presence in a place where she had absolutely no obligation to be.

There are people in our lives who make the world a calmer place. I remember as we rushed through the Orlando airport earlier in the month, encountering rude and obnoxious workers and passengers, one after the other, and it was the Starbucks barista who was a calming presence. She greeted us with a warm smile and pleasant energy, and she was patient as we figured out our order with a mile long line behind us. She wished us a safe flight as we left, and I knew in that moment somehow she somehow had the talent to diffuse the stress of airport travel in a brief encounter. It was Ann from that wretched school where I spent a year who was my calming presence. I remember when Ethan was in the NICU, and the lactation nurse named Jody was my calming presence. She always stopped by to check-in and reassure me that everything was going to be okay while I sat alone in front of his isolette for 53 days. 

We lost somebody at my work. A calming presence in what often feels like a storm at our schools today. Caryn, our quiet, kind, hardworking registrar who never asked for anything and never complained. We would often go to her with whatever we needed, and even if it wasn’t her job, she’d offer her assistance. In my time here, she never snapped, never showed anger, never got snarky or frustrated or said a bad word about anyone even when they deserved it. I don’t know how she did it, but I have to confess I’m nowhere near her level of disposition. She will be missed. I regret not doing more to be a calming presence to her, as she had been for all of us.

In a world where life seems to get exponentially more difficult, it feels like we need more calming forces. Little bits of tranquility tucked into unassuming encounters. People who understand that some of the biggest things we can do for others are acts of kindness that likely will not even be noticed, but will have an important impact on other lives. 

So I’ve been thinking a lot about that. How do I work on my own life, to make it less stressful and maximize joy and love and peace of mind, while also helping others through restraint and kindness, being a calming force, even when I don’t have to—especially when I don’t have to. It is a balancing act and likely yet another reason why being human is so dang complicated and hard. 

As I aspire to master this, I lean on this loving kindness meditation from the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple Reading that we say:

May all beings be happy and well,

May no harm or difficulties come to them,

May they live in peace and harmony.

May I be happy and well,

May no harm or difficulties come to me,

May I live in peace and harmony.

May my family be happy and well,

May no harm or difficulties come to me,

May they live in peace and harmony.

May my teachers be happy and well,

May no harm or difficulties come to me,

May they live in peace and harmony.

May my friends be happy and well,

May no harm or difficulties come to me,

May they live in peace and harmony.

May strangers be happy and well,

May no harm or difficulties come to me,

May they live in peace and harmony.

May my enemies be happy and well,

May no harm or difficulties come to me,

May they live in peace and harmony.

May all beings be happy and well,

May no harm or difficulties come to me,

May they live in peace and harmony.

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