Locating Identity in the Midst of Transition

I like to play this game with myself—I try to think about where I was, and exactly what I was doing in various increments of time radiating out behind and before me..

A year ago, I went down the the Riverwalk, climbing down the boulders near the Missouri River while I talked on the phone to a dear friend.

A month ago, I was in swimming in the Atlantic ocean, on the beaches of Puerto Rico.

Twenty four hours ago, I was making a fort on my sister’s porch out of couch cushions and car blankets.

Twenty four hours from now, I will be wrapping up another school day, opening the door as backpacked kids rush out to their parents.

Two months from now, I will be wrapping up my last school day, saying goodbye to these kids and my career as an elementary teacher.

Six months from now, I will be somewhere on the west coast, doing the very same thing I’m doing right now—writing another blog post about where I’ve been and where I’m headed.

A year from now…oh gosh. That’s where it gets blurry.

DSC_0050Am I the only one who does this game? I find myself playing it a lot, especially in this season of transition. It makes me feel more centered, less lost and more found. Sometimes I zoom out even farther.

5 years ago, I accepted a job to be a third grade teacher in Liberty Missouri.

5 months ago, I came to the conclusion that my time as a teacher was (and needed to be) coming to a close.

2 months ago, I set the intention to take the second half of 2016 to travel down the west coast, traveling slowly and stopping in a couple of cities that interest me, while trying to grow as a writer.

Right this minute, I’m feeling caught between deep excitement and peace about this plan, mixed with bursts of panic over a lack of concrete capital “P” Plans. (i.e., I will be staying at this place for these dates, making a source of income a reality by fill-in-the-blank.)

Here’s the reality that I keep coming up against, and I know it will come as a shocker—I can’t actually see into the future. I have plans, and I am actively and daily trying to flesh out what those plans will look like, but the sheer amount of mystery and unknown lying ahead of me is dauntingly unprecedented for this girl. Even my snapshot of six months from now, the furthest my imagination dares to venture is much more of a hope than a certainty. The fact that the details are so blurry is freaking this Certainty Addict out.

Well, to give myself some credit, I’m not freaking out as much as Year-Ago-Allie would have. I know that Fear is always along for the ride when I take a risk and step into the unknown. Acknowledging the shaky feelings and being gentle with myself in the moments of doubt has been something I’m learning how to do. That’s another reason I like playing this game. Looking back reminds me of how far I’ve come. It reminds me of the story that I’m in the midst of, the heroine of my own narrative that I’m in the process of becoming.

DSC_0054Back when I was around nine or ten, my family visited my aunt and uncle in Michigan. There were some baby dedications being held at the church in which my uncle was a pastor. I remember there was this big, pastel colored baby name book sitting on their kitchen table that Sunday morning. This book was thicker than the average baby name book, as it had both the original meaning of the names as well as a biblical name. I’ve always been fascinated by the meaning of names, so I fanned the book open to the “A’s.” My given name is Allie, so it’s rare to find my name in books such as these. I often have to settle for saddling up next to Allison or Alice, a derivative that I have always resented. But lo and behold! My name was there! I can’t recall what the “original meaning” was but I do remember the biblical meaning of the name: “Illuminated One.” I didn’t even know what that word meant, but I liked the way the word dripped, then danced off the tongue- il-luuum-in-a-ted. I tucked that word into a corner of my heart, saving it for later.

Obviously, that word has come to mean a lot to me, a touchstone of sorts. It has come up for me in several different seasons and important, life-shaping conversations. (Hence, the blog name…)

Here is what dictionary.com has to say about the verb, illuminate:

1. to supply or brighten with light; light up.

2. to make lucid or clear; throw light on (a subject).

3. to decorate with lights, as in celebration.

4. to enlighten, as with knowledge.

5. to make resplendent or illustrious.

6. to decorate (a manuscript, book, etc.) with colors and gold or silver, as was often done in the Middle Ages.

In the midst of so much unknown and everything changing, it is so good to be reminded of my identity. I read each of these subsets of definitions today and added my own exclamation point to the various shades of meaning. This is my name. My identity. As the “Illuminated One,” I am lit from within. I am called, and it is my deep honor to accept the invitation to be one who brings light, who fosters lucidity through the pursuit of truth. This little light of mine is one of celebration and illustrious decoration, calling hearts to see Beauty! Yes, mysteries shroud around me in darkness, and uncertainty abounds, but I am the Illuminated One.

I don’t want to get caught up in my time travel game, reliving the past or trying to guess the future and miss the Here and Now Reality that I am in. Sure, I can gain wisdom from knowing and naming my where I’ve come from and there is also a wisdom in planning for the future, but no- that’s not where I find my identity. I’m not named by my past, nor does my worth depend on my ability to try to live up to my name in some expected future. My centeredness doesn’t come from certainty. I have my name. The Illuminated One. My twenties have seemed like one long string of transitions, and I’m finding myself embarking on another one. But the journey now isn’t really about finding where I am, or even who I am, but becoming who I already am. DSC_0092

How Naming Your Essentials Helps You Thrive

I’m listening to the book The Essentialist right now, by Greg McKeown, and it is resonating so much with core values that have been forming in me the last few years. In a world increasingly inundated with noise and and so many options, I’ve been craving intentional simplicity and a conscious choosing to live a life that lines up with who I want to be. Our culture has been fed the lie that we can “do anything” that in attempting to do it all, we end up accomplishing little to nothing. We’ve become these stressed out, exhausted, ineffective shells of beings.

I see it everywhere. I see it in my own life. It happens in subtle ways—getting caught up in checking my Instagram account impulsively to see how many likes I got, or in saying yes out of obligation to commitments I don’t feel excited about. It is so deceptively easy to be driven by people pleasing or “shoulds”, but whenever I look up, and pause long enough to consider the why behind my actions, I feel the weight of the clutter these choices has caused. I feel frustrated by the sense that I’m not gaining traction in different areas in my life, or that I’m “making a millimeter of progress in a million directions.”

Contrast that with essentialism:

“The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.”

I think my spirit jumped up and down and clapped its hands inside of me upon hearing Greg’s steady British voice narrate this sentiment on my Audible app. Yes!!!! This is what I want! I’m realizing that in order to “live by design” it is so important to determine what it is specifically that I want to mark my “one wild and precious life.” This isn’t a new and radical thought by any means, but this book has helped me remember how important it is to be very clear and specific with who I am, where I’m headed, and what it is that is truly a priority for me. (The very word “priority” implies singularity, that which is “prior” to all else. It’s only in the last few centuries that we have pluralized that word. But when you think about it,  it’s absurd to have five “priorities.” Giving lip service to a myriad of “top priorities” is not only silly, but it is setting you up for exhaustion, frustration, and failure.)

It’s going to be a hard habit to break, I’m realizing. Letting go of the myth that multitasking is an effective and responsible choice. To wean myself off of my addiction to the approval I get by saying yes to anyone and everyone’s requests, not to mention my dependence on the feeling of “being productive.” But in the times where I have stepped into the way of the essentialist, chosen simplicity and a healthy rhythm over trying to fit it all in, I’m much more joyful, much more myself, much more able to be fully present.

I’ve been drawn to simplicity for several years, and most recently, I’ve been dipping my toes into minimalism, but I like this approach of being an “essentialist.” It means starting with getting down to one’s essence, or “the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, that determines its character” as Merriam Webster puts it. 

  • What is it that makes me come alive?
  • What characteristics define the truest parts of me?
  • What do I find at the intersection of my deep inspiration, my natural talent, and my world’s needs?
  • What choices do I need to make now that I will be deeply grateful for when I’m 70?

It has been immeasurably helpful for me to sit with these questions, in stretches of uninterrupted solitude, and answer these questions, not with vague generalities, but with specific, true, and clear answers that serve almost as a mission statement for the Corporation of Allie.

I feel most alive when I am on adventures, when I am genuinely connecting with people in good, thought provoking and life giving conversation, and when I am in the flow of creating beautiful things. At the core, I am someone that craves authenticity and to live wholehearted in all areas of my life. I deeply believe that these pursuits happen in the midst of and because of loving friendship and deepening trust with The Creator, my Redeemer, and the mysterious Holy Spirit. I have been feeling the invitation to enter into a lifestyle where I can create (both in writing and in art-making) and share that with people who are also in the midst of transition and longing for wholeheartedness as well. I want to live a life that doesn’t just contemplate these things, or talk about pursuing joy and wholeheartedness, but a life that lines up with these claims.

Part of living a life as an “essentialist” is being continually reminded of what makes up my essentials. A creative exercise that I’ve been doing this week has been to work on painting a visual representation of that which makes up the core of my me-ish-ness—my “Allie Essentials” if you will.

 

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If you were to be an alchemist of your own being, what core elements would make up your essence? Does that stand in contrast to what makes up the reality of your day to day life? (If I did an accurate snapshot of the essentials that actually take up the most of my time, I guess I’d have to have included my smart phone, Netflix, and Target runs into my illustrations…) Naming the things in our lives that bring us joy, that call us deeper into who we are helps clarify and more easily identify the things, habits, or distractions that get in the way of our essentials.

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetI have this quote from a Walt Whitman poem taped to my nightstand: “Dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.” I’ve always thought of that as advice more so for dealing with toxic internal thought patterns that I have a tendency to hold on to, but I’m seeing this beautiful advice in a fresh light today. Part of pursuing the discipline of “less, but better” is to dismiss anything that doesn’t align with the flourishing of your soul. Granted, there are always tradeoffs, but there is such a rich joy to be found in the pain of giving something up or saying no when we realize what it is that we are freeing ourselves up to say yes to.

Allie’s (Somewhat) Complete Guide to Getting Lost

DSC_0324I have a love/hate relationship with getting lost. In theory, I like it. After I’m done being lost, I like crafting my episodes of lostness into humorous and/or eloquent tales to share with others. Even leading up to moments of feeling lost, I am reveling in the adventure of it all. I want to be the kind of person that jettisons the GPS and who embraces the moments of not knowing quite where I am.

But when I’m actually in that moment, of realizing that I don’t know where I am, and having to declare myself as officially “lost”, there is a rising panic and a discomfort that leaves me feeling spastic at best and spiraling into Identity-Crisis Level of Despair at worst. If I’m really honest, I prefer the comfort of certainty, having a plan, and knowing exactly where I am, where I’ve come from, where I’m headed and exactly how long it will take me to get there.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I think ahead to my Grand Adventure that is starting to take shape, my plan to travel solo down the West Coast this fall. For the most part, I feel a deep excitement and peace about this plan, even while acknowledging that parts of this trip will indeed be challenging, but “capital ‘G’ Good” as I like to say.

I was lying in my bed a few weeks ago, thinking about the spring break trip I was about to take with my friend and roommate, Clair. Part of us being able to afford this tropical getaway meant having an overnight, 12-hour layover in Dallas as well as sleeping in hostels while in Puerto Rico. I was thinking about the reality of what these accommodations would mean. Laying in my soft, decadently blanketed bed, I started dreading the discomfort that I was choosing to step into over the next week: slumped over in uncomfortable airport chairs, bunk-bedded sleeping in close quarters with strangers, living out of a backpack… Then it hit me—in a few short months, I am willingly signing up for this lifestyle, only more intense! I’m going to be essentially homeless! For months on end! I am choosing to say goodbye to this bed, this bedroom, this city I’ve become familiar with, this comfortable and predictable rhythm I’d been fostering over the last few years! What am I thinking?!?

My minor freakout didn’t last very long. The next morning, as I was writing some of these trepidations out, I recognized the voice of fear so easily. (Isn’t that often the case? Just like our four-year-old selves, the bogies of night time are much less scary after a solid night of sleep. They are easily diminished in the light of day. Please keep reminding me that I shouldn’t always take myself so seriously.) “Oh, hello Fear. I haven’t heard from you in awhile,” I wrote back with a knowing grin. “Yeah, I know adventure is uncomfortable. Certainty and Comfort seem like much safer companions than Mystery and Creativity. I see your point, but I don’t want to be tethered only to what feels easy. And if memory serves me well, I have never regretted stepping out into an adventure I feel invited to. The discomforts are indeed there, but they are overshadowed by Abundant Life. And I simply cannot, will not say no to that. While your thoughts are valid, they will not be determining my course of action.”

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I was reminded of the inevitability of uncertainty, difficulty, and getting lost in Adventure while I was in Puerto Rico. Getting from one place to another is just challenging when there is a language barrier and you have to rely on unreliable public transportation. Like I said, before the moments of getting lost I was all optimism and confidence, my dad’s mantra “It’ll all work out!” playing in my head. And it did in fact always “work out,” Clair and I feeling like such badasses for navigating our way, (in broken Spanish) figuring out all on our own how to get to where we were going. But, I’ll admit in the moments where the bus didn’t come, or I couldn’t find the car rental place and the ferry was leaving in twenty minutes, I wasn’t feeling quite as empowered. I wanted certainty and assurances like my nephew wants his blankie when he gets hurt. I wanted someone else to please take control and fix things for me. I tried to shove down my inner Spastic self that comes to the surface in these moments, tried to keep the “It’ll all work out” mantra playing, but my mind would be overtaken by worst case scenario what ifs, like an emergency broadcast alarm taking over my “regularly scheduled program” of calm, cool, and collected thoughts. I’m sure the edge in my voice was noticeable to those around me, even while I tried to feign an air of badassery. After several rounds of this nearly-missing-the-boat-but-it-actually-worked-out-perfectly, I came to this conclusion: in life (or at least in traveling) I need to expect that it’s going to be difficult, that roadblocks will come up, but also I need to trust that it will all work out in the end. Maybe if I start to expect it, then it will stop throwing me off as much in the moment. (Hopefully this isn’t me becoming jaded, just a move towards a less naïve optimism?)

The thing is, the disorientation of getting lost will probably never stop being not fun. But I do think it is a necessary part of journeys. And there is a cost to living in a world where there is only ever constant certainty.  We’ve gotten so used to instant precision and the comfort of verification through technology. Pull up the map app and see the blinking blue dot: You Are Here. Tip, type, tap, and the trip starts. Never any moments of not knowing the answer. Always on the most efficient route, with a reassuring voice, telling you how many miles till your next turn.cell phone

One of the effects of having a smartphone when I’m traveling is that I end up looking more at the little screen of my phone rather than the Here I am in. While I am grateful for Siri, and rely on her often, it was nice to not have the option of her in Puerto Rico. There’s even been times over the last year where I’ve chosen to venture out without my trusty sidekick of Google Maps. Sure, it is a little bit riskier, and granted, a few times I have taken a “wrong turn,” but you know what?  It always turned out as more than ok.

What would happen if we let go of constantly needing to know where we are and where we are going and exactly how long it will take to get there? What if the “wrong turns” just take us to new vistas and moments we needed to be in?

The irony of writing about being lost is not lost on me. Truth is, I’m a few months away from stepping away from everything predictable and safe and known. I’m having lots of those moments of “wait–am I lost?” conversations with myself, the vulnerability that toes the line between change and identity crisis. Getting lost in Puerto Rico was like living a metaphor for my season of life right now. I think I have a lot left to learn about getting lost in the months ahead. So I suppose my title is a bit of a misnomer. Well, here’s the thing–I titled this post before writing it, and formed it from a list of “72 Effective Blog Post Titles,” so I am stubbornly keeping it and just adding the “somewhat” for a touch of honesty. Also, parts of this post are from something I wrote almost a year ago. My voice was a lot more certain then, a lot more confident about how great it is to Be Lost. In reworking it to post this today, I am more deeply aware of how important it is to have a willingness to “lose sight of shore” but also a more humble self-awareness of what that entails, and a feeling that there is more to come, more to understand in a visceral, deep down in my core sort of way. Maybe this is the first post to come in a series, as I step into the unknown of this next season. But here’s to learning how to take Getting Lost to an art form.

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10 Things I’ve Learned as a Third Grade Teacher

I have been in the world of elementary teaching for five years now. Not that this makes me a wizened old sage, and I’ve long abandoned my secret hope of being awarded “Teacher of the Year” but I’ve been increasingly aware that my time of read alouds and recess duty, teaching the nines trick of multiplication and having Danny Tanner level heart to hearts is quickly coming to a close. I’ve been reflecting on all the ways this job (which has never been “just a job”) has shaped and changed me. While I’m still in the thick of it, and certainly more reflections will come, I wanted to share some things I’ve learned that have spilled over into my life, some truths I’ve come to carry inside me from my time inside the classroom.

classroom1.  It will never all be done.

The first grade teacher I student taught with said this to me with a sigh, one of our first days working together. “You need to know, going into this job, that there will always be more that you could do, should do. It will seem like the noble thing, to work yourself to the bone, but it is so important to have a life. To find balance.” This has rung so true for me. As one who is wired to prize productivity, being a teacher has forced me to let things go, to make peace with my humanness and leave the classroom with tests ungraded, with copies left to be made, things not put away. This hard truth has spilled over into other areas of my life, and I have a feeling it won’t stop being true once I’m not a teacher anymore, but I’m thankful that my worth doesn’t lie in my ability to Get It All Done.

2. People really are all trying their best.

This truth is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, having read Brené Brown’s discuss this in her book, Rising Strong. It’s hard to know whether or not this is actually true, especially when frustrating evidence seems to be pointing to the contrary, but I do know that when I choose to believe this about people, I have a lot more compassion. That parent that calls and spends 10 minutes yelling at me is just scared and exhausted and trying the very best they can to advocate for their child, the one they love more than anything. Behind the acting out and the defiance in my students are hearts that are longing to feel secure and loved. I need to be continually reminded of one of my favorite quotes:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

3.  Boundaries make me a nicer person.

The battles I’m most often fighting are ones over boundary lines. I went into elementary education imagining that I would be like a cross between Miss Honey from Matilda and Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus. I imagined my classroom being this warm community of spontaneous learning moments and adoring children skipping from one authentic learning discovery to the next. When I tried to be only nurturing and soft, I would let little things slide to the point where chaos crept up quietly and I became more like Ms. Frazzled than Ms. Frizzle. Rather than the soft spoken, gentle Miss Honey, I felt more like the evil stepmother figure, (if not externally, at least in the inner monologue.) This year, while walking to recess (which involves traipsing down two city blocks past business people walking to lunch) these suited professionals with their hour long lunch breaks and their extravagant per diems would smile affectionately at the chaotic parade that I was trying to corral, and I would loathingly yell in my head “Wipe that smile off your face mister! These kids are not cute! They are terrors! I’m at my wit’s end and it’s only 11!!!!” These moments of inner fury came as a result of months of boundaries being tested, of expectations being set and not kept. Actually, the times where I have stuck to being a “mean teacher” (a teacher who says what she means and means what she says, one who sticks with the boundaries I have set to help create a calm environment) I am actually a much more compassionate, kind, and happy person. My classroom has become like a microcosm for me in so many ways, as this truth so absolutely applies outside the classroom as well. Any time I am annoyed or frustrated or exhausted, nine times out of ten, it is a boundary issue. (Also, I watched Matilda awhile back with my students, and you know what? Miss Honey is kind of a pushover! And not the childhood hero that I remember. And Ms. Frizzle, love her to death, is kind of a flake. I’m my best when I choose to be fully myself with my kids.)

4. You cannot change people.

Not with enough sympathy, not by trying to work harder than them or doing the work for them, and certainly not by shaming them or using force. Granted, you might be able to modify someone’s behavior, or fix a momentary issue, but lasting change happens when someone decides for themselves that they want to change. I think so much burnout happens in the world of education when we take it upon ourselves to be the sole savior of the kids that come into our classrooms. We can impact them, we can lead them to moments of truth and provide resources, but people are not like an engineering problem, that can be fixed with a formula.

5. Don’t take on burdens that aren’t yours to bear.

This is a phrase that I often have to remind myself of, another variation of my battles with boundaries. Whether it was school politics or a girl drama at recess—the times where I tried to insert myself into something that wasn’t my problem often didn’t end well. See, there’s this subtle but ugly pride that comes from needing to be needed, but it leaves me exhausted and resentful, when my stepping in wasn’t required in the first place. As a fifth year teacher, I’m much more practiced at responding to problems with “Oh man. That’s a bummer. What are you planning on doing about that?” which is much better than my old knee jerk response of “OK, I’ll take care of that.”

6. Flourishing happens when we give others the dignity of being taken seriously.

I can see my kids recoil when someone regards them with sugary “Oh bless your heart” fakeness. They know the difference between authentic listening and the bemused half distracted charade of listening. I have seen so many quiet kids unfurl like a tight blossom at the nourishing sunlight of simple unbroken eye contact and still, consistent, genuine care. In busyness, in getting wrapped up in our own swirl of Very Important Problems, it can be so easy to cariacaturize other humans, especially children, to see them as their label or simply a distraction. This is what The Little Prince encountered with frustration, on his journeys beyond Asteroid B-612.

“The grown-ups are very strange… One must not hold it against them. Children should always show great forbearance toward grown-up people.”  (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

7.  True learning happens when we are given space to fail safely.

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As the adults in kids lives, or in any relationship where you see someone you care about struggle, there is such an impulse to rush in, to fix, to save others from the pain of failure. This has created entire generations of people who have a crippling fear of not being perfect, and who have not had the opportunity to practice resilience. So much of my work in the classroom has had little to do with multiplication or determining the main idea of a text, but much more so about the unlearning of perfectionism, and cultivating a mindset that mistakes are not only okay, but necessary. It takes trust to believe that the sting of failure in the short term will lead to something better, but it is a leap we must make, and one we must foster for others.

8.  I have a voice that I must use with honesty and courage.

It has always been my impulse, in moments of tension or stress, to withdraw, to get quiet, to doubt myself and be engulfed in paralyzing shame. Slowly, messily, I am being freed from this tendency. As I’ve stepped into “adulthood” with a professional career, it has been so valuable to watch women show up with confidence and speak into challenging dynamics with grace. At times when it would have been so much easier to keep my opinions to myself, to close my classroom door and disengage, wise women have counseled me to trust my intuition and to speak up. “I just don’t think you’ll ever regret being honest and speaking up for what you think is best for kids,” were the words that one teacher said to me a few years ago, words that have stuck with me. I sought that same teacher out when I was feeling very lost as a teacher this year, when I was grieving over feeling like I had lost all confidence in who I was as a teacher, she told me fiercely “You have to fight for finding your voice.” As a teacher, as a professional, as a woman, I have to know my voice and I have to trust that what I have to say is important. Who am I not to?

9. Change is just plain hard.

It’s such an interesting time to be a teacher. Even in the last five years, the way I approach my job and what my day to day life looks like has drastically changed. There has never been a year where I have been able to recreate the previous year, simply tweaking and improving certain aspects. It has more been a minefield of massive learning curves, one after another. There are big shifts and changes is the way we think about education and how to best foster the learning process, but just like puberty, the change has come with growing pains and a whole lot of uncomfortable awkwardness. It came up in a conversation I had with my co-teacher last week; change always comes at a cost, and I don’t think it will ever stop being hard. Yet it is inevitable and trying to deny that never ends well. Being in a field that is drastically changing has forced me to enter into the process with more open hands while at the same time learning how to honor myself well in the midst of this revolution. I’ve had so much practice, learning how to adapt in the moments of unexpected curveballs that comes without warning and I’m still learning to be graceful with myself in the process of transition that lingers in the aftermath.

10. We all really do want to believe in magic.

ChildrenThe moments I will treasure most in my half decade of being a classroom teacher will be those moments when I looked up from the book I was reading aloud to see eyes alight, captivated by the story, hanging on my every word. Or the sheer delight in their eyes when we’d get mail delivered in our “magic mailbox.” Third graders are in this sweet spot, on the brink of discovery and first stretching their new muscles of abstract thinking, and yet they still (for the most part) hang on to their innocence fiercely. They will actively suspend their disbelief to hold onto the magic of childhood, their wisdom more profound than they know. Spending copious amounts of time with eight and nine year olds, I’ve come to see the inner third grader, still very much present in friends and strangers alike. I’ve seen the ways that we long for that magic too, some of us still seeking it and drawing it out in others.