I believe the children are our future

The world has felt scary and unsafe lately. While that used to be a “Jen-thing” for a good chunk of my life (i.e., let’s work on this in therapy, why does the world feel so scary for no reason?) it’s currently….not. I’m not even slightly alone in this feeling, and honestly, rather than that being comforting, I only wish it was a Jen-thing rather than our reality.

And one thing I tried to figure out back in January was, what the heck am I going to do/talk about/say to/work on with my students? We’re in a situation where we as educators and therapists can’t share our fears or beliefs with our students (which could be a whole post in and of itself ), but where our students are aware of what’s happening in the world, regardless of their own beliefs about it (which at many of their ages, are just their parents’ beliefs being parroted).

So after a lot of thinking and toying with different ideas, I decided to do a project around “World Issues”. It started about a month ago, with us talking about Martin Luther King Jr., and how we had a day off to celebrate him, and why we celebrate him and what issues he cared about. Then we brainstormed other issues that exist in the world or in our community. You guys – kids KNOW. They hear things and they are aware, and they care. They very quickly rattled off issues and examples that they’ve heard of or witnessed in our world and community. Here’s an example of one group’s brainstorm (excuse the horrible picture quality):

The dialogue that happened was powerful. For each group it meant different things – sometimes simpler and sometimes more in depth, but the point was, they all had reactions and feelings about these topics. I could write for days about each group and the conversations we had, but I’ll just share this one: One student said “war? But that doesn’t happen anymore. There hasn’t really been a war wince World War 2.” And then another student said, “War happens all the time still, like in Syria,” and the first student responded, “That can’t be right. If a war was going on, the United States would do something about it and make it end and not just ignore it.” I know. Powerful.

Politics came up here and there – how could they not? But we kept things factual (“yes, that did happen, yes, that order was signed, yes, some people are upset about it, yes, some people are happy about it”) and moved on.

Then they each chose an issue that they cared a lot about. With two different graphic organizers, they brainstormed and organized information on their issue. The project culminated in them writing a paragraph about the issue of their choosing, and for my students, this is no small feat. All of the steps involved in writing a paragraph when you have significant learning/language disabilities and challenges, maybe with ADHD and anxiety also, can take up to 5 or 6 48-minute sessions. Which is why their end products are so wonderful and move me to tears. (For the record, I also got moved to tears when they wrote a paragraph comparing and contrasting two different types of penguins – they are just such smart kids, such hard workers, and it is not. at. all. easy for them)

So: enjoy. Here’s the final products (with a pretty bulletin board display to come, hopefully next week) of some of my wonderful 6th-8th graders. Read one or two or all of them – because this is the world from the next generation’s perspective. This is the future.

Write and breathe

Did you know that exhaling activates the parasympathetic nervous system? That’s the part that calms you down, brings you back to baseline. I love that fact. I love it in part because it means there’s actually something really easy we can do when we’re anxious: exhale. Long exhales. I also love it because I knew, for years, that “take a deep breath” was not always helpful. There are about a million reasons why. But I think one of them is because breathing in, in and of itself, actually isn’t the solution. If we aren’t careful, we breathe in too quickly, or too deep, and exhale too short, and we end up hyperventilating and more anxious than we started. The key is to breathe overall. In deeply if it’s helpful and cleansing – but out, slowly, for longer.

I have felt anxious on and off the last few days. This isn’t anything new for me. Anxiety comes and goes, it’s a part of me, and in learning and accepting that, I don’t worry when I’m anxious. I very infrequently panic, like I used to, What if I’m anxious forever? It just doesn’t work that way. There’s nothing to panic or worry about. I will be prone to anxiety forever – I will not be in an anxious state every moment of every day forever. And anxiety in and of itself, while at times unpleasant, isn’t a bad thing.

Anxiety means one of two things: something is happening or upcoming that is on my mind, or something is subconsciously working itself through – meaning I’m not (yet) aware of what it is, but it’s doing its thing. These things aren’t brilliant revelations – but having spent years thinking I was anxious “for no reason”, it’s always a comfort to remind myself that there IS a reason. I just might not know it. And in a way it’s kind of cool (kind of), that my body can work things through even before it has been able to effectively communicate to my brain. Quite efficient. Sometimes unpleasant, yes, but efficient nonetheless.

Oh, goodness. There isn’t a point. I can’t always have a point of writing, can I?? Mostly what happened is that I haven’t written in so long. And the more I don’t write, the more I feel it building inside of me wanting to burst. Kind of like when you have to pee (I know, but seriously, it’s a good comparison). And then today I thought, Ugh, I wish I could just write something, I know it would feel freeing and cathartic. And then I told myself Uh, you can. Just go write something. And then I argued back, But I have nothing profound and no words of wisdom and no good moral or lesson. And then I countered, Right. But. Who cares, remember?

Ah, right. Who cares. Write from the mixed-up middle, and you don’t need an ending, and you don’t need a beginning, and you don’t need a point.

Fear.

This will not be well-written. Or profound. Or unique.

I don’t care.

I’m afraid. And heavy. With a pit in my stomach.

My heart starts to race each time I see a news alert on my phone. What now? I wonder. I don’t feel like I can go more than an hour or two without checking Twitter, in case something has always happened. And something has always happened.

And it’s only been a few days.

And it’s not one of those times where I can say to myself, I’ll step back from the news. Give myself a break. The way I have before in stepping away from horrific coverage of a natural disaster, for example. No, it won’t do me any good to not be aware of what’s happening right now.

Lies are being told. And luckily, we are all calling them for what they are: lies. We have to do this. Because years ago, lies were spread, and horrible things happened because of it. Like: slavery. Like: the Holocaust. Like: hatred of minority groups. But what if people stop realizing that they’re lies? Start thinking, Well, if they’re being told over and over again, they must be true. What if we stop getting access to the truth?

I’m afraid because he/they are already trying to quiet our voices. What’s to stop them from blocking our ability to communicate? Will we wake up one day and newspapers won’t exist anymore? Twitter? The internet?

I’m afraid because even though we can march and we can fight and we can make calls and we can write and we can protest, we CAN’T stop all big legal things from happening. The things that, only a few days in, are already happening. And that’s not pessimistic, that’s just the truth. It’s not to say that we don’t have power, because we do, and I firmly believe that, but there’s also certain executive power that’s beyond us, and it feels helpless.

I’m afraid because this sounds like the beginning of many of the dystopian books I’ve read and used to love. How at the beginning, someone comes to power. And then they make certain rules. And all of a sudden, society is completely different. And we read those books thinking, Wow. That’s so crazy. Thank goodness that would never happen to our world. Except. Could it?

I’m afraid because that isn’t too far-fetched. And the thing is – this isn’t anything that anyone else isn’t feeling. These aren’t unique worries. Most people I interact with on a daily basis feel the exact same way. But instead of feeling reassured that others feel the way I do, it just feels disheartening. Because secretly I think we all want someone to hug us, to hold us, to say to us, Oh, honey, don’t worry. Your worries are just worries. But you can let them go, because they’re not going to happen. They’re not real. Observe them and let them go.

Except nobody can say that to us this time. Because they’re real worries. Real fears. Real things that could happen.

And there’s not a lot we can do about it. Except cling to each other. And hope. And tell the truth until they sew our mouths shut. And refuse to go down without a fight.

Use your voice

And use your voice, every single time, you open up your mouth.

(My Chemical Romance)

One of the most empowering moments of each week is at the beginning of my yoga class. We stand at the top of our mats, with strong legs, rooted down. As we reach up and bring our palms to heart center, our teacher invites us to gaze down or close our eyes. She tells us we are going to open class with the sound of a single ohm, and then she says:

“And as I always remind you: of all the things to fear in this world, do NOT let the sound of your own voice be one of those things.”

That reminder, that statement, sends chills up my spine. It makes me grow a little taller, breathe a little deeper.

I used to fear the sound of my voice. I used to keep opinions and thoughts and worries and fears and dreams and desires and stories to myself. It’s scary and it’s vulnerable to speak, to make noise. It invites in the possibility that we may be quieted, diminished, dismissed, ignored, berated. Amidst those possibilities, it seems safer to wilt and hide from the sun.

The thing is, nobody is every really ready to use their voice. Nobody walks into yoga thinking, “Today I’m ready to chant ohm with my class.” Nobody wakes up thinking, “Today I’m ready to tell the world my story.” If we wait until we’re ready, we will be waiting our entire lives. This is the truth.

So instead, we have to just do it anyway. Sometimes in small whispers and sometimes in loud bellows. Last winter I posted a baby step post, and then I told my stories, and then one day I just said, “It’s time.” And then I wrote it and sent int into the world.

Turns out, using your voice, speaking your truth, doesn’t break you. Quite the opposite, in fact. It sets you free. It connects you with others. It invites in conversation. It helps dispel others’ shame. It sets off a ripple of bravery. It’s all good, wonderful things.

The other day I said to Laura, “Remember when we thought that we would go to the grave with it as a secret? I never, not in a million years, thought I’d be here. But look at me – standing in the sun.”

Using our voice gives us power. It raises us up. Makes us grow. Dispels fear. Washes away shame.

So, maybe you don’t feel ready. It’s okay. Go ahead anyway. Chant that ohm. Tell your story. It will not break you. Stand tall, root down, turn toward that warm sun.

On not fleeing

Last week, my husband and I were flying home from vacation. I hadn’t been feeling well the morning of our flight – my stomach was a little upset and I felt slightly dizzy. On the way to the airport the car was warm and I overheated and felt faint, my pulse was high, and I was emotional about vacation being over and leaving loved ones. When we walked into the airport, Husband asked if I was okay and if I needed a minute, and I said I was fine – because I was, in that moment.

But as we waited in the line for security, I felt it start to come on. Fight-or-flight kicked in. While it almost always happens during medical situations, it can also occasionally happen for seemingly no reason at all. Shit, I initially thought. It’s panic or it’s a vasovagal syncope, but either way this is not good. My heart began to beat too fast, I started to sweat, and I felt that horrible hot sickening feeling wash over me – the one that signals, You’re going down. Literally. So I tried to lengthen my exhales as I took off my coat and shoes and put my carry-on on the conveyor belt. But that hot feeling kept coming in waves and I felt my stomach start to tighten – I was going to throw up, or faint, or need to use the bathroom immediately.

I evaluated my options – I had one person in front of me before I could go through security, and for a second, I turned around, deciding to let others go before me and sit down before it overcame me. But the security guard motioned to me, and told me it was my turn. One minute, I told myself. Hold on for one minute. And then, whatever happens, happens. I made it through security. And the minute it was over, I ignored my belongings, knowing Husband behind me would gather them, grabbed a nearby trashcan, and sat down on the ground, dry-heaving, spots floating in my vision, bowels clenching.

I stayed seated for a while and Husband came to check on me, but I was okay. A few people glanced at me but most didn’t give me a second look. One woman asked if I was okay, and I told her I wasn’t feeling well. She sympathetically smiled and moved on.

And then I was okay. And I didn’t spend the next hour ruminating on what happened and why and trying to understand every part of it. Instead, we got some cold water, walked to our gate, and then moved on.

Years ago, I would’ve fought. I wouldn’t have even made it through security because the thought of Oh heavens, somebody is going to see and someone is going to know, and they’re going to wonder what’s wrong with me, and I don’t even know what’s happening or why, and it’s going to be humiliating would magnify it immensely. And that fear of someone seeing, of knowing, and therefore of deciding I needed to fight it, just made the situation worse. But facing it, letting myself be vulnerable, is what helped it pass quicker than it ever would’ve years ago.

A few weeks ago I was talking with my therapist, discussing an upcoming situation in which realistically I am likely to have one of these attacks/situations, and she asked what my goal was in envisioning how I’d like it to happen. Was my goal to “be okay” with what was happening in the situation and therefore not panic/not have my body respond in this physiological way?

No, I realized. The point isn’t to make it go away. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but the point is to be okay with whatever happens. So if I have a panic attack – it’s okay. If I throw up – it’s okay. If I pass out – it’s okay.

And deciding to float, to face it, and not to run or fight it – that’s what gets you through. That’s the bigger life lesson anyway, right? That we will be okay. Whatever happens. And we don’t have to run, because it will not destroy us.

Solstice.

Turns out that despite how much I love writing a new solstice post each year, my thoughts don’t change much.

Last year, I wrote:

The Winter Solstice is here.

Oh, how I love this day.

Today, after six long months of turning towards the darkness, we began to turn towards the light.

We gain a minute of light each day – and in a time where life can feel very dark, each minute makes a difference.

The earth begins to propel us towards the light, just as the waves in the ocean propel you to shore. We now ride the wave of the earth, as it cradles us and gently moves us towards hope, and energy, and life.

All of those are still truths I hold firmly in my heart.

And now, there are sunflowers too, in my head and on the wallpaper of my phone, reminding me that even before solstice, even before the world pushes us toward the light, we can move ourselves. We can stretch and grow so that even in our darkest moments we are always, always, always reaching for the sun and any light we can find.

Happy Solstice.

Towards the Light (author unknown)

By moonlight,
or starlight,
or in the sun’s bright rays,
I journey,
guiding my way
by keeping to the light
as best I can.
Sometimes all seems dark,
then I remember
how the poppy turns its head,
following the sun’s passage across the sky,
then rests in night’s cool shadows,
bowing in thanks
to whatever power
makes the stalk
stand straight and strong,
drawing deep from its roots
a wine dark love.
In moonlight,
the garden glows,
silvering the poppies.
And even by starlight
you can tell shades of darkness
if you try.
So do not lose heart
when vision dims.
Journey forth
as best you can—
bloom when you are able,
rest when you must,
keep your faith,
keep always
towards the light.

Just listen

The minute we got into the room, she put her head down on the table and, sighing heavily, said, “Parents are SO over-protective.”

(Hey, she’s 12. She’s allowed to say stuff like that.)

The role that she needs me to play, as I’ve quickly learned over the weeks, is to be a listener. Think about it – even as adults, all we want is to be listened to, right? Now think back to adolescence and pre-adolescence. We had people telling us we were being dramatic, overreacting, not appreciating what we have. But all we really wanted was validation. So that’s what I give her, while she complains about not being allowed to have social media accounts. She rants about the state of the government, and she talks about how “stupid” it is that people still think that girls and boys aren’t equal. (I know. She’s outstanding.)

We get through a little work. Then she groans again.

“Stupid getting dark early. The lack of sunlight messes with my pineal gland and makes melatonin at the wrong times so my sleep gets so messed up. Ugh. Stupid pineal gland. Sorry in advance if I get even grumpier. It’s not my fault.” I nod. I tell her I so get it.

We do a little more work. We get to a point where she’s going to need to read out loud. She muscles through, struggling to sound out words, struggling to scan to find the part she’s looking for. Most days she’d push through, maybe complain once or twice, but she’d get through it. But lately, things have been getting harder, and she knows it. She’s coming off a bad cold. She’s exhausted. She’s brilliant and struggling in school. And she’s 12.

On the verge of tears, she puts her head in her hands and says, “This is HARD. It’s not fair.”

“I know,” I tell her, as I tell her every week. “I know it’s hard for you. You work so, so hard.”

But this week she keeps going. “It’s not fair. I did so great in 5th grade. And now I’m doing horribly in 6th grade. Everything’s hard. It makes me feel stupid.”

We talk openly, as we always do, about her struggles in school. We talk about how 6th grade is harder. And how her IEP team, including her parents, are working to find out the best ways to help her. We talk about how even if school, particularly reading and writing, are hard, it doesn’t mean she’s not smart. She knows all of this, but we talk about it anyway. Because, how many times have you known something deep down but can’t trust it? Can’t believe it? Need to hear it from someone else? (Me? Only about every day.)

We get through a little more work and then I tell her we have 5 minutes left. She groans. “Why does time go fast when I want it to go slow, and goes slow when I want it to hurry up?” I smile. I tell her I can relate.

She asks if she can draw a picture. She tells me, “This is going to be a picture of what life is like for me.” And she starts to title it (H – E -). She pauses, looks at me, and asks, “Do I need to keep going?” Knowing that “hell” is one of her favorite words, one she usually works into our sessions at least once because she knows I won’t tell her parents, I tell her, “I think I know what you’re going to write.” She then draws the picture. Frustrated with herself for not drawing it correctly, she tells me, “This part is fire, and this part is water. Fire for the horrible and hard parts. Water for the parts that I guess are okay.”

I run with it. “So what are the parts that are okay, or even good?”

She rolls her eyes and recites, like a little performer, “I’m healthy, I have food and water, I have a roof over my head, I have a lot to be thankful for.”

OH, I so know this. Raise your hand if ever you were told those things as part of a reason about why you shouldn’t be anxious/depressed/upset/traumatized/heartbroken/etc? Yup. That’s what I thought.

I look her dead in the eye and I tell her, “No, not those things. What are the parts that each day are good? That you truly love, that make you smile? The smaller things.”

She thinks. “My family,” she starts. “And art.” Her face lights up. “Pottery. Making things.” She names a few other specific things that she loves. She looks at me.

“I’m glad you have those things,” I tell her.

The hour is up and her dad comes in. We fill him in on the work we got done, and in general terms, that we talked about how 6th grade is hard, and how school is feeling really frustrating and more and more difficult. He looks her in the eye and tells her he knows, that they’re working on it, and that they will keep working to help her. After we all chat for a few more minutes, he tells her that they’re picking up pizza on the way home. Her face lights up and as we all walk out, she negotiates for a soda, listing all the reasons she should be allowed to have one.

I just adore that kid.

You guys – when anyone, but especially a child or adolescent, talks to you – really talks, and tells you their thoughts and their feelings and their fears and their hopes – listen. They’re trusting you with their inner storm, and most likely, they don’t share it with just anyone. I promise you – they don’t need you to give perfect advice. They don’t need you to fix it right now. They just need you to listen. To tell them you get it. To hear them. To give them time. To hold space.

No different from what we want, right?

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