Finding Courage Through Surrender

This post may be a little woo-woo-sounding, but it’s about something I’ve been going through and how I’ve been dealing with it — including looking to God for guidance, and the guidance I received, and where it may take me.

I’ve been struggling with this one class. Of the eight that I’m teaching right now (four college, four ACT prep), there’s just this one that I can’t seem to get into the flow on. It’s one of the ACT prep classes that the district has made mandatory for every kid in certain schools designated “underperforming” (code for all kinds of other adjectives having to do with disparity of resources).  Most of the classes of this type that I’ve taught have been challenging but ultimately rewarding for me as a teacher, and the kids have seemed to get something out of them too.  For this one, though, uh-uh.  Even though individual sessions may go well enough, given that the kids didn’t choose to be in this class and most don’t want to be there, there’s this palpable antagonism coming from the students that goes beyond mere not caring.

I had this group before. I get them for eleven days at a time, not all in a row, and I haven’t been able to shake the role of outsider. They hated the (pre-set) material and I felt like they hated me.  Their classroom teacher didn’t seem to like me, either, and that didn’t help.  She seemed to have sized me up in the beginning and dismissed me as ineffective and not worth her time.  I tried not to take it personally, but it took a lot of emotional energy to keep going in there, to keep smiling, to keep looking for ways to get them engaged.  I rotated out to another class for a while — a great relief — but I knew I would be going back. Man, I sweated it. I seriously did not know how I was going to get through the hour each day, let alone offer the students something that would actually be useful or helpful to them.

But it turned out that this was actually a good place for me to get to.  Because when I realized I was at the very end of my power to get through something that I knew I had to get through, a light finally came on.  If I recognize my powerlessness over life circumstances, I know my only choice is surrender to God.

I was drawn to a little book of daily meditations by Hazelden called In God’s Care for a message from my higher self.  The message was this:

“A consciousness of God releases the greatest power of all.”Science of Mind Magazine  ~~ Just thinking of God as we go into situations we’re uncomfortable with or perhaps even fearful of will relieve our troubled mind and lessen our anxiety.  Carrying God in our thoughts means we don’t have to, for that moment or hour or day, feel alone.  Quite miraculously, we’ll know that God can help us handle what we could not handle alone.  Most of us dwell more on negative thoughts than on thoughts of God.  And our life is far more confused and complicated than it needs to be as a result.  To replace one thought with another is really quite simple.  A quiet reminder to stop negative thinking and remember God is all that’s necessary.  We may have to repeat the process many, many times, but patience brings the result we want.  God will strengthen us and take away our fears if we remember to remember.  ~~ I will keep God in mind today.  I will concentrate on remembering.

Whew!  Yeah.  As soon as I read these words, my heart remembered and knew their truth.  I felt the blessing of them immediately.  So I did this.  I clung to that message as to a lifeline.  The first day that I went back to this class, I concentrated on remembering that just thinking of God would release a new energy into the situation.  When I went into the school, I inwardly spoke God’s name.  In the classroom, during a lull, I tried to turn on my spiritual awareness, to sense God’s presence — and of course the presence was there, as it always is, everywhere. And here’s what God showed me when I tuned in to God’s perspective: the stress, the distrust, the shields, the fear, the worry, the isolation that these students carried.  I felt the atmosphere as one of tension, of deep, deep guardedness. I knew that I could never know what types of circumstances and home lives they had experienced.  And all I could feel toward them was compassion.

And toward the teacher, I simply felt friendliness, a new openness that surprised me, that came to me without my trying.  If there had previously been a power struggle, my end of it dissolved.  I felt no hesitation about going up to her at every opportunity and asking her for suggestions, or what she did in her own classes.  I couldn’t make her like me, but I could send the message that I liked her, respected her, and wanted to work together.  After this, the vibe definitely shifted.

Since then, I have relied on God to get me through each class. I’ve been giving it everything I’ve got in terms of teaching ideas — there’s pretty much nothing I won’t try at this point to make the class worthwhile for the students.  But at the same time, I’ve surrendered the outcome and my own will and effort to the power of God — and I’ve needed to, because finding the courage to face it continues to be a daily challenge.

Yesterday, I was still having a tough time.  As I walked into the school, I imagined God walking with me, throwing an arm around my shoulder, encouraging me.  I got through the class; the activity I’d come up with was semi-successful (which is really saying a lot, compared to past experiences!).  And as I left the class and headed out of the building, I found myself still connecting to that feeling that God was right there with me.

God as I meet God through recovery literature is a lot like God as I meet God in the Baptist church: Real. Personal. Walking beside me. Speaking in direct and unmistakeable words, right into my heart. The Infinite One who still has both the time and desire to talk to me, the lowly straggler. I guess that must be part of the Infinity. This is the expression of God that I can have a conversation with, the one that will give me guidance, straight up.

So I asked:

Am I doing all right?

God answered:

You are doing fine, kiddo. That feeling of security and warmth that lets me know when I’m hearing Spirit’s word welled up under my rib cage.

I asked: Am I doing what you want me to be doing?

The answer came instantly: Honey, I don’t want you to have to be working so hard.

I felt the beginnings of tears as I climbed the long hallway ramp, heading out of the building.  My current seven-days-a-week teaching schedule has been taking a toll, and I’ve been feeling depleted of emotional energy.

I asked: What can I do to change this? I’ve been so stuck in this rut, working so hard and not making a living wage.

God answered, gently but firmly: You need to respect yourself. All the guidance about publishing your work is part of this.

Me: (Silence; reflection.  It’s been an ongoing crisis all spring.  I’ve been doing a daily practice to “remove obstacles” between me and the sustainable and creative work life that I want to manifest.  The practice had led me strongly toward writing.)

God: And when you learn to respect and value yourself and the unique gifts I gave you, I will place you where I want you. Don’t worry about figuring out the “right” job to pursue. I’ll put you there when you have learned this lesson.

As I passed through the door and walked to my car, I noticed the warming, fresh-smelling spring air.  I reached up to touch a branch of one of the gorgeous, thick-trunked pine trees that ring the school grounds. God will place me where God wants me, eh?  I felt a smile begin in my heart and extend across my whole body.

I know I don’t respect and value myself as God does, or as God wants me to.  And sometimes I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to.  But I’ve grown in this area, certainly, over the past many years.  It’s one of my life lessons.  In my family, it’s transgenerational.  Part of the purpose of my life is to heal this wound of self-unlove that has stretched so deep and wide.  This conversation with God made me feel like I had the inner permission to take another step, or more, into self-value, which would really be a step of greater closeness to God.


Twice-Told Tales

Last Friday I went to a workshop organized by my department, called “Stop, Write, Reflect–Teach!” They pitched it as a chance to take time out, return to the writing that nourishes us, and think about why we became teachers. I was really excited for this because I’ve been feeling a renewal of interest in and motivation for writing lately, and the opportunity to have community support for my writing is just not something I’d pass up right now.

In this workshop we were led through a process of exploring our personal histories, specifically with regards to teaching, as narratives. The facilitator diagrammed a plot arc on the board and asked us to think about the initiating events, the conflicts, the moments of heightened tension, the crisis and the denouement of our teacherly lives. She had us do little five minute writings in which we would write continuously for the five minutes — a shorter version of what Natalie Goldberg calls writing practice. And as I was writing, I kept thinking about how “these are my stories…” as in, the stories that have congealed over the years into episodes in a narrative that I’ve told, I feel, too many times. These supposed standout points on the plot line of my life — I felt like I was watching once again a VHS tape that had been rewound and replayed too many times.

Natalie Goldberg was one of my first true heroes, one of maybe three writers who seriously influenced my intellectual, spiritual, and artistic development when I was in high school. I wrote about her in my college application essays. I still consider her mode of writing practice to be the foundation of all creative writing (for me), and I share her “Rules for Writing Practice” and “Beginner’s Mind, Pen and Paper” at the start of every single writing class I teach and probably always will. People who take more than one class with me get to read it multiple times.

Maybe it’s because of the ideal implanted in me when I first read her book Wild Mind in tenth grade, or maybe it’s just my own neurosis, but I am always striving to write something that’s not boring. I was afraid my teacher narrative (which is also to some inevitable extent my grad student narrative) had crossed the line from vibrant, illuminating, impassioned, to boring, processed, twice-told. It just felt like the same old stuff, and I felt ready to let go of it.

I think those memories, the “turning points” (in plot-speak) that I identify as part of my “story” of how I came to be an adjunct community college English teacher with a Ph.D. In American Studies, are important, and some of them even make good stories, but it’s just been so long that I’ve been rehashing them. I learned a lot through both living them and analyzing them, and now I’m wondering what it would be like to try on a different narrative. Like trying a new hairstyle, it could change my whole personality. I’m curious what it would be like: a story that would read my past a different way, and maybe thus shed light a little way into the future.

It feels like a story that hasn’t been written yet, and like all blank first pages, it’s a little daunting. But it came to me again that I need to imagine the teaching job that I actually want, and it makes sense to reimagine the context in which it — and I — would exist. A new read on my past; a new theory of why I care about teaching (and what else I care about, and why): It’s so — so — lit analysis circa 1998!

What first comes to mind for revision is this whole category of memories filed under “failures.” These mainly have to do with a. social missteps (large and small) resulting in hurt feelings (mine or another’s) or embarrassment or both, b. social ineptness related to shyness and insecurity, or c. lack of proper career development. Those are, of course, arbitrary interpretations of ultimately neutral material. I would like to free myself from those calcified, crusty stories, with which I punish myself whenever a random reminder causes them to rise in by brain. How I handled myself when a friend moved away. Various lies I told or petty acts of revenge I committed in high school. The reasons why I didn’t get promoted. These and unbelievably many other negative stories about myself, I haven’t yet been able to let go of. But I feel like in this go-round, at the writing workshop, as, out of annoyance, I struggled to find some new interpretations of the material if memory — that grip cracked open just a little bit. As a result, at least part of me feels not just ready, but straining to release those beliefs about what a failure I have been.

I’ll share an example of an episode whose moral I need to rewrite, one that has come up since the workshop: my relationship with my dissertation advisor.

I sometimes have moments of clarity when I realize that in general, I habitually see almost every aspect of my life as evidence of another dismal social failure, or maybe the next installment in one epic social failure that began exploding on my first day of preschool and hasn’t yet ceased to be a continual disaster. As I review my actions and my days, it’s automatic for me to think of how I screwed myself over by not being willing or courageous enough to initiate, or skilled enough to maintain, conversations, friendships, relationships. I just feel I suck at this and always have. It’s, in my estimation of myself, one of my greatest flaws and sources of shame.

Well, when I was in grad school, the process of finding and working with an advisor took me way longer than most people, because I just couldn’t steel myself to ask someone if they would be my advisor. It took me even longer to get a committee; my department actually started harassing me to to get these established already before they dropped me from good standing (it was close!). I ended up asking this wonderful woman, a queer Chicana who’d gone through the same program as me, and who shared my political orientation, to be my advisor in like my third or fourth year. It was really hard to do. But she said yes.

Then, I always felt like a crappy advisee because I never checked in with her about my dissertation. Unlike my colleagues, I never sent her chapters as I finished them, never workshopped anything or got her feedback or suggestions for revision. I barely talked to her except when I had to meet with her and get a form signed every semester. I thought she was great, I really looked up to her, but I couldn’t stand the idea of the possibility of her not liking my work. It had happened enough times — maybe someone thought I wasn’t theoretical enough, or didn’t claim my argument strongly enough. What if she thought my work was unworthy of my program? I literally couldn’t take the thought of it. So I didn’t send her a thing until I was about a chapter away from totally finishing my dissertation — then I sent it all to her and asked if she thought I could defend it in a couple of months.

Unbelievably, I got away with that! She barely had me to any revisions — said she liked it, and arranged for my defense. My committee members were all pretty hard core about what they liked and didn’t like, yet somehow they all gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up. I had never heard of anyone avoiding their advisor, writing their dissertation with practically no input from anyone, and then passing like that! I considered my way of doing things a major failing; I continually berated myself for not taking advantage of the opportunities for intellectual development and friendship that can come with the advising relationship. I simply could not make myself do it.

As a result, I always assumed that she thought little of me — that she didn’t think of me at all. I figured I was a blip on her radar, an unmemorable experience, and I more or less tried to forget about what I thought if as my failure as an advisee.

But the other day, my partner, traveling several states away to our alma mater, actually ran into my advisor, and according to him, she said she really missed me. I thought, how could she possibly miss me, with as little as I talked to her? Yet apparently, whatever I thought of my own actions and appearance, she remembers me as a smiling person who wrote a great dissertation. She said she actually refers people to my dissertation as an example, and that she strongly hopes I will still publish it because some people need to read it, in her opinion.

What does it serve me to hold on to this idea that I was a sucky grad student? So all these writers and academics passionately loved and hated their advisors, were pounded into greatness by their advisors, went to barbecues with their advisors … so what? I always look at that as the standard, and see myself as deviant. It’s the same with so many things involving social interaction. I just feel like such a loser.

But could it be possible to really rewrite my story in a way that values what I did do? I’m wondering if there is a way for me to re-remember those years and determine that the way I went about grad school was just fine, it was just the way I personally did it, and it was a success, and I did everything exactly as I should have, in the right and perfect way for me. I didn’t develop into an academic superstar and I never became truly comfortable or confident in those intellectual-social-collegial circles, at least not in MN, at least not at that point in my growing up. But dang it, I pushed myself a lot; I didn’t hang around in my comfort zone. For as terrified as I was, I navigated the tricky situations and survived, academically and spiritually and physically (and there was some doubt about all of these at one point or another). I did get straight A’s (ok, one A-). I got a bunch of really awesome people to be on my committee. And the author of the book I based my dissertation on loved how I used her work. So maybe I didn’t totally wreck it, my grad school career. Maybe I could start being proud of myself and stop being ashamed.

… And now I have a sneaky feeling that the diss needs to be published. To which I respond: Oh, shiiiiiit. But returning to and finally finishing that project would be the perhaps the best dramatic rewriting of the old advisee story, the one with the sequel, “I’ll Never Publish my Diss.” It requires facing the same things again that scared me before: submitting for approval, exposing myself to criticism, plus revisiting stuff I’m out of the flow with, and my fear that revising that diss for publication would take all my time and I would dangerously overwork myself even more than now, and I would have a mental breakdown of some kind.

But something has shifted lately, maybe because I came to a crisis point in my life recently which has convinced me to be open to any guidance or any possibilities that I feel led to — especially, or really only, things I have not tried before. I just got simultaneously fed up with both the stagnation of my quest for a living wage and the worn out methods I’ve tried repeatedly with no success. So whatever I do, it had to be something different. And I have never seriously tried to publish my dissertation before.

Ok, although I have a whole ongoing string of thoughts and reflections I’d like to post here, I’m aware that this is already a really long post about my mental process — so if you’ve read this far and you really are interested, well, I’ll be writing more in other posts.

If you’ve stopped reading, although you won’t be actually reading this, namaste. And if you haven’t stopped reading, namaste, and thanks.


Snow always makes me introspective.