Tuesday, October 29, 2013


It just so happens that today is another 'anniversary'.  One year ago today, our overstuffed Armada and road-weary crew rolled into town to begin life as Texans.  Along with a modge podge of odds and ends from our old house we carried a sense of relief and gratitude for our safe arrival, and a bucket full of trepidation as we crossed the threshold into not only our temporary living situation but also the adjustment to our new 'home' state.

I wasn't new to this game; after all it was just seven and a half years and three kids earlier that I was on the tail end of a one way, western-bound road trip that landed this eastern Pennsylvania girl north of Denver.  Travelling with me that time was with my husband, an excited sense of adventure, and the mounted deer head that my in-laws managed to put into the front seat of my towed Jetta on the first leg of our lengthy drive.  {Yeah, I'm sure we were the cause of more than one 'double take' as we traveled the open road}.

But this time, this move, this new adventure...it had a completely different feel.  The addition of an entire family to the mix of newness meant I inadvertently felt responsible for making the transition as seemless as possible.  Not only for myself, but the littles, who looked to me for guidance and levelheadedness {ha!} as we navigated our new and humid surroundings.  I invested myself so greatly in making their adjustment an easy one, that I began to marginalize my own thoughts and feelings and emotions that frantically and erratically coursed through my body like cockroaches scattering at the first flicker of light.  

What I seemed to forget, or rather, neglected to admit, is the resiliency of children.  Resilience isn't something that is innate, but can be cultivated when children are armed with confidence, a strong sense of self, coping techniques, and a strong connection to loved ones.  We must have this parenting thing figured out pretty well, because all three of the kids jumped right back into a routine of life, without so much as a hiccup or any noticeable weight of panic.

Oh, how I envy that.  

Here I am, one year...365 days later...still searching for the pieces and parts to make my cloak of resiliency whole and sturdy and impenetrable.  And while most of the time, my 'stage makeup' reads settled in and adjusted and content, my innards still have twists and turns and forks in the road that leave me with anxious uncertainty.  Even though my daily routine seems established enough that I could technically consider myself a 'stay at home mom who tries really, really hard to relish in things like folding laundry and dusting and endless toy pick ups', I still feel a void; a cake without frosting, a novel lacking a plot.

For the past month and a half, I've been a part of a women's bible study at our church.  I have had the opportunity to get to know a group of women as we navigate through the book of Colossians and hone in on the overarching idea of recognizing your identity.  We're spending time discovering who we are.

Um...hello?!?  Could this not have come at a better time?  {well, technically, yes, I guess it could have...but I know God placed this along my path at just the right time, according to His watch...not mine.}

But seriously.  When I walked in on that first day and saw the words Who Am I? at the top of our accompanying notes, a smirk of ironic elation foretold of the goose-bumpy, simmering-but-not-quite-boiling, desperate woman that was bouncing around inside my jumbled mind and crackled heart and incomplete soul, fiercely beckoning for the answer to that inquiry.  I knew I was in the right place.

As the weeks have passed, I've become enthralled with not only the teachings, but my own personal discoveries, the connections I'm making, and the opportunity to experience vulnerability in an atmosphere that doesn't involve me typing my innermost thoughts and struggles and pains onto a white screen and clicking 'publish', all the while never seeing the faces or body language of those who happen to stumble across my musings.  What I'm finding out is that kind of vulnerability, the 'face to face' kind, is hard.  Tougher than what I do here on this screen.  It's scarier in a way, because eye contact and facial expressions and body language are all visible things to my audience when I'm right there in front of them.  

I've been told that what I do here on this blog is courageous and brave and helpful.  When I hear that, I gravitate toward that last word.  And I think to myself, "Yes!  Writing that did help me so much!"  It doesn't always occur to me {i.e. very rarely} that person is referring to someone other than me.  {That sounds narcissistic, I know.  But trust me, it's 100% the opposite.}

The catharsis I experience when I click keys and make words that ramble into sentences that turn into lengthy stories is what I crave.  I need to write, I feel an urge or a pang or sometimes a proverbial smack upside the head to get my words out in this kind of forum.  And yes, it's scary to write this way, in this ghost-like atmosphere, where I can be un-showered and bleary-eyed and random and messy in the comforts of my home, but my audience is none the wiser because they rely solely upon my words to make judgements about or opinions of me.  Reading words is different than hearing them.  Tone of voice, the purposeful pauses, and the inflection can be lost when reading the written word, unless you are a virtuoso of the art {for which, I am most definitely not}.  Anyhow, all of those characteristics are what makes the job of a speaking storyteller and truth teller so different than a writing storyteller and truth teller.  At least, that's what I've quickly realized in my bible study.

I've always been outgoing and friendly and personable, a chatterbox of sorts.  I'm a connection craver.  I love to make a connection with people, even in line at the grocery store, at the playground, or at church {drives Randy bananas}.  But when connections like that are made, they're typically over things like an idea for a quick and easy meal, a comparison of toddler sleep schedules, or a congenial greeting followed up with a commentary on the weather.  People don't generally wear their life story on their sleeve.  They don't generally start off with, "Hello, I'm a wonderfully broken mess, and here's why..."

But when you're put into a situation where you're sharing your story--your messy, convoluted, crazy, defining story--out loud in front of people; woah.  Ish just got real.  For all the chatting and talking and random conversations I throw myself into throughout my daily activities, my natural ability to craft phrases and sentences betrays me when I have to be all 'for reals' in new and uncharted territory. All that friendly confidence is replaced with twitchy legs, sweatiness, and a wavering voice that scrambles to find words--of any kind when I am in a situation where I am 'on stage' to share intimate details of my life story with people who I don't really know all that well.

And so when we were asked to make a rough outline of our life story using short phrases and words to guide us as we took turns sharing, I did what any {wanna be} writer would do...I wrote.  Not phrases and words...but sentences.  As I typed, I realized I would bore these sweet women to absolute tears with my figurative language, lengthy descriptions, and overuse of digressions and asides {as I do all-too-often in this particular venue}.  So I shifted my intention of reading it word for word to one of using my words to clear my way of thinking so that my 'talking' story would be shrouded in authenticity; rather than sweaty, stammering, disorganized vulnerability.  

Alas, the latter came true as I shared the story of my history and re-walked the path of my life.  Afterwards, I felt parched and twitchy and exposed; like a middle school girl in the locker room.  But after a little while, after my legs stopped fidgeting and my heartbeat regulated, I glanced down at my text as I slid it back into the pocket of my 3-ring binder.  I ignored the feelings of dissatisfaction with myself for not having more fluidity to my story, and honed in on the theme of what I had written about.  My life, in metaphors.

I'm big on metaphors.  I recognize them in the strangest of all things and at the most bizarre times.  Like I said, I *heart* connections.  So it seemed fitting as I wrote about my life to compare myself at various time periods to something.  Throughout parts of my life story, I likened myself to that of a mosquito, a crab, a chameleon, and, my most recent analogy, The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  Not only is it one of my favorite books by one of my favorite children's authors, but it complements the 'adulthood' portions of my life story pretty well.  

I wrote about how in college, I came out of my shell {egg} in the 'sunniness' of a freshman year of college.  I wrote about how I used the years that followed as my own personal smorgasbord of crazy fun, questionable decisions, and over consumption of too many things that weren't good for my body, my mind, my soul.  At the time, of course, I thought it was just 'one apple' or 'four strawberries'.  And, on occasion, it was just that.  But, as destructive behavior so often tends to do, the downward spiral soon had me seeking less of the fruit and more of the junk.  {For those of you who know the story..."I was still hungry"}.   As the sands of my college hour glass made their way from the top bulb to the bottom, I knew I was heading for a path on which I did not want to be when I became a 'real' adult.  In essence, I had eaten my way through too many chocolate cakes and ice cream cones and cherry pies and lollipops and watermelons.  {"I had a stomachache!"}.

And then I met Randy.  Something about this guy...a connection I didn't realize I was needing until it was right there in front of me.  Randy was kind of like that "nice green leaf" that made me feel much better.

With our college careers in our rear view mirror and the Rocky Mountains on the horizon, I realized "I wasn't hungry anymore, and I wasn't little anymore." {seriously...if you're lost in my analogy, read the book.}.  And, as it turned out, soon after we moved, I found out I was pregnant and then I was in fact a "big, fat caterpillar".  {No, I don't think  pregnant women are fat, and no, I don't use that term in a judgemental way.  It simply fits with my metaphor.}

So life began establishing itself pretty quickly in Colorado.  I had a fantastic teaching job, was making new friends, and enjoyed exploring the state with Randy and then Gavin in tow.  Our family grew and our roots deepened.  Life was all good.

So when we made the decision to move to Texas, I felt stifled in a sense.  I felt all fluttery and colorful and jovial about the life we'd established.  I flitted from home to work to friends and all around the front range in a nonsensical, random pattern that only a mom with a jam-packed calendar could relate.  My wings were spread wide and I loved the freedom of my gloriously beautiful landscape and unparalleled way of thinking that can only be described as 'Rocky Mountain High'.  

Then....talks turned to Texas.  It felt like my wings had been touched too many times, too many scales had come off, and now my ability to fly was compromised.  But of course, we had to go.  It was what was best for my husband's career and ultimately, for our family.

As we began to experience life in the subtropical climate of southeastern Texas, I retreated further and further into my mind.  My sadness and confusion and guilt and anxiety wrangled their way through my soul in a messy and all-encompassing battle that, at times, took over my ability to function at a level remotely close to that with which I was accustomed.  I was wrecked and cracked and muddled on the inside, and struggled to keep my tough exterior from being marred by my feelings of guilt.  I was in a cocoon.

As I was writing my story, I looked over my words {the voices of my studious munchkins echoed in my brain: "all good writers reread their words, mommy"}.  I got to this point in my story, this 'cocoon' part when I realized how a** backwards that is.  I mean, I knew that a caterpillar goes into a cocoon before becoming a butterfly, but how could I explain those seven and a half years of 'butterfly-dom' in Colorado if I wanted to stick with my little metaphor?

And that's when it hit me.  

For all the allure and majesty those Rocky Mountains may boast; for all those absolutely beautiful and life-changing friendships that I had made throughout the years; for all the roots we had established and the memories we had made; for our entire blessed life in Colorado, that was my cocoon.  I wrapped myself up tight within the comforts of a place I fell in love with, a place where I became a we and we became an {all of} us.  That place, that state, those years are cherished and special and reside in a space of my heart that's as big as the unparalleled skies we had the privilege of living beneath for nearly eight years.  With my heart and soul filled with the blessings of what my life had become, I felt secure and content and I didn't want that to change.
My Colorado cocoon was a comforting space in which to lay my head.  I learned how to be a wife and a mom and a 'grown up' in that space.  Randy and I took a long road to learn the art of compromise and communication, but the cocoon kept us secure, even if there were bumps and jostles along the way.  It was a sanctity I did not soon want to abandon.

In Texas, as the boxes unpacked and we came down from the high of a crampy and nomadic lifestyle to that of a sprawled out, 'normal' family; I found myself still trying to seek solace in my Colorado cocoon, only to find it was an impossibility to bring all that comfort and security along with me to Texas.  I was a lost little pupa without my protective chrysalis.  I shrouded myself in sadness, self-pity, guilt, and emptiness, and then on top of that I wore either a comedy or tragedy mask, depending on how well I was able to conceal my inner struggle.

As I've been working through my battle with depression, I am realizing that my wings, my big and colorful and expansive butterfly wings were not the things that kept me flying high while I was in Colorado.  The comforts of a supportive circle of friends, a blessed life provided by my husband, the newness of trying to figure out that whole 'parenting' thing...those were the things that fostered my feelings of freedom.  Those comforting things gave me the support I needed to gain the inner strength I'd need for this leg of my life's journey.  

While I don't think that I've fully emerged from my cocoon yet, I know that I've been able to tuck the Colorado parts of it deep into my soul and use it as nourishment for when things get frazzled and I feel uncertain.  Right now, my cocoon is made strong by my husband and kids, the friendships I'm developing here, our church, and my ever-growing faith.  There are days when my colorful wings peek out from the shell, giving me a glimmer of hope that I'm on the right path to one day becoming a "beautiful butterfly".

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

the yellow folder

One year ago today, I was preparing to walk away from a lifelong passion and continue down a path lined with uncertainty and change...and humidity.  {Lots of humidity.}  Boxes and tape and permanent black markers helped to encapsulate a decade's worth of time spent 'in the trenches'.

In between wrapping up my last few lesson plans, preparing for conferences, cherishing moments and stories and conversations with 'my kids', and meeting with parents one final time; I packed.  I slowly placed items in boxes, cautiously picked and chose what I removed from the walls and shelves so as not to draw too much attention to the void left behind.  I didn't put things into boxes while my kids were in the classroom; always opting for times before and after school, during gym or art or music, or during my lunch.  I couldn't bring myself to take things out of the space that we had spent the past two months establishing as 'ours', couldn't look at their faces as they watched me prepare for my next step.

The days that followed after I broke the news to my class that I'd be moving to Texas were the saddest, yet most humbling days I'd spent as a teacher.  I can't tell you how many boxes of tissues we went through those first few days, or how long I sat out in the hallway that Friday morning with a cluster of crying kids.  It seemed that as soon as I'd get the gaggle of kiddies calmed down, one student would burst out into tears again, thus setting forth a series of waterworks that trickled throughout the circle and even leaked into the eyes of students who were walking by and had 'heard it through the grapevine'.

Hugs and well-wishes and cards and gifts were poured upon me with love {and even more tears}, and every one of them was {and still is} wholeheartedly appreciated.  Visitors stopped by my classroom, or would wordlessly console me as I nostalgically walked through the hallways.  I wanted to remember the little things; the bulletin boards covered with student work, the pockets of kids working together on projects in the annex at the top of the stairs, the voices of kids reciting their times tables or reading aloud to volunteers.  Along with all of the 'things' that made up a decade-old classroom, I wanted to capture the sights and sounds and even the smells {well...some of the smells}.  Sharpened pencils, lunchroom food, the air fresheners I used to mask the post-recess 'glow' of a throng of preteens {that last one didn't always work...no matter what Febreeze may claim on television}.  I was trying to drink in as much as I could, store it up like a camel, for I didn't know when I would stumble upon the next oasis.

Truth be told, when I was at school, instructing my class or walking the halls or having lunch in the lounge; I didn't want to leave.  I didn't want to pack and move and start all over.  I wanted to keep things the way they had come to be over the past 8 years of our lives.  At our home, I began the process of staging each room so we could prepare it to go on the market.  In an effort to depersonalize the space, I removed dozens of photographs from the walls, and lined them up like dominoes in the now very cluttered space of the garage.  The process of our move happened relatively quickly from the perspective of a calendar, but from my viewpoint, it was a painstakingly slow process as pieces and parts of our life were wrapped, boxed, sealed, and labeled.  There were a multitude of blessings in the professional movers who took care of putting the contents of our house into the fifty foot trailer of that big rig; Randy had already relocated to Texas to begin work, which left me to wrap up things in Colorado by myself, all while maintaining as much 'normalcy' as possible in the kids' lives.  It also made the process move much more swiftly than I would have ever been able to manage flying solo.  Their three days of packing could have quite easily taken me three months, as I walked down memory lane with each item I packed.

However, the movers were not a gift I was able to receive in my classroom.

Actually, I take that back.  My dearest friend Sue, armed with tape and boxes and markers, swooped in like the angel she has always been in my life, and knocked out a larger percentage of the packing than I was able to accomplish.  My classroom library--bookshelves overflowing with well-loved books sporting dog-eared pages and crackled spines desperately held together with strips of clear tape--along with a variety of other teaching materials were meticulously packed into boxes and carefully labeled by her generous, comforting hands.

And while she packed, what was I doing?  In all honesty, the last few days were a total whirlwind.  There were so many loose ends that I felt like a kindergarten teacher with a classroom full of kids who haven't mastered the art of shoe-tying.  As soon as I'd get caught up, someone else would come to me with laces needing fastened.  In the midst of it all, my emotions were on high alert--a red flag warning had been issued-and no one, not even me, was attempting to swim in those dangerous seas.  Sure, I cried and hugged and said my farewells, but I was merely scratching the surface of the flurry of emotions that were churning up just below the surface.

I remember walking out of my classroom for that last time.  It was evening, later than I was used to staying at school.  Some colleagues had arranged to have a little send off at a Mexican restaurant up the street, and I was running late.  I was loading the last of the boxes onto the flatbed so I could roll them out to my already overstuffed SUV.  As I stopped to flip the light switch, I paused.  I gazed around at the classroom I had called 'home' for a decade.  Sure, I hadn't taught in that particular room throughout my tenure, but it wasn't the walls or the floor or even the state that made it a classroom.  It was the magic that happened within the walls, the lessons I taught, the kids I read with, the non-stop line of students at my desk, the hugs in the doorway, the tears cried whenever I read Thank You, Mr. Falker or The Junkyard Wonders.  I wasn't turning down the light in a room, I was turning down the light in me.

Once we moved, it didn't take long for emails and social media connections to begin with the questions.
"How's it going?"
"Are you guys getting settled?"

"Have you found a teaching job?"

That last question.  Like a bit of salt in a fresh, open wound.  Yes, at this point it had been several weeks, months even since I'd closed my plan book, but the feelings were still raw, the emotions finally bubbling to the surface as the busy season of our move drew to a close and life began to settle into a more regular routine.

I hated hearing {or reading} that question.

I felt like the question was a giant watch, with a large and impatient finger tapping away at the face, as if to say, 'when are you going to get another job?'  I felt as though my spot on the totem pole had been replaced by someone who was more of a 'go-getter', someone who better lived up to the phrase 'teaching is my lifelong passion'.  I felt like something was wrong with me.  Why wasn't I working harder at getting back into a classroom--a place where I so obviously felt 'at home' when I wasn't with my husband or kids.

As time passed, I found myself thinking {and saying}, "I don't know if I'll get back into teaching".

Um, what the what?  The girl...the five year old girl who fell in love with the art of teaching in the caring hands of Mrs. Toney--a magical and amazing kindergarten teacher...the eight and nine and ten and twelve year old girl who would line up her stuffed animals and dolls to play school when her younger brothers protested the 'game'...the teenager would spent time in a first grade classroom to work with kids and learn from one of the most gifted teachers she has ever come to know...the college student who balanced a lifestyle of working hard with playing hard in such a way that she was able to graduate and then become a teacher at the same school where she spent a semester interning...the woman who took on student leadership, a yearbook, and directing the drama club at the expense of spending that time with her own children but with the supreme benefit of working with students.  That girl.  That person.  Not get back into teaching?

When people outside the world of education envision the life of a teacher, there are those for whom reality is heavily skewed.  From my own personal experience, the majority of these people do not have school aged children, however there are those out there that despite the fact that they do, their brains do not possess the capacity to look past the 'summers off' {HA!} component and into the reality of the field of education.

The fact of the matter is, that outside of ALLLL the paperwork, the planning, the curriculum, the standards, the standardized testing, the veritable alphabet soup of acronyms, the preparation, the reading, the grading, the politics, the lack of funding, and the laughable paychecks--the heart of a true teacher, a teacher who is in it for the 'lifelong passion' of it works harder than you could ever envision.

And when I turned off the light in my classroom, I felt like a shade had been placed over my light.  My 'teaching heart' was broken; crackled and dimmed from the uncertainty of the future and how long it would be until I set my high-heeled 'teacher' feet in a classroom again.

Even today, I still don't know when or even if I'll venture back into the role of 'Mrs. Conley, passionate lifelong classroom teacher' in the way I had always envisioned part of my obituary to read.  I don't always miss the work load {okay, I virtually never miss the work load!}.  I don't miss the endless meetings and changes and swings of the pendulum from year to year.  I don't even really miss eating lunch in the lounge.  Sure, it was nice to have the social component, but I've grown quite fond of living room picnic lunches with a chattery toddler.

What I miss more than anything, more than one single aspect of the whole beautiful, magical world of teaching, is the kids.  I miss their morning greetings as they dash down the hallway to be the first through the door.  I miss their messy desks and rumpled papers and piles of backpacks and sweatshirts.  I miss the real-life way in which I connected with them, the way I'd share my life and my stories with them in the same way they'd share theirs with me.  I miss the dance parties we'd have when we needed brain breaks, the games we'd play when I needed a few moments to gather my materials or my thoughts, and the funny cheers we'd do so they'd always remember the product of 8x8 or how skew lines exist in the real world.  I miss reading to them; watching them lounge around on the floor or the pillows or each other as I'd crack open our latest classroom novel and begin to dive into the magical world the author had created for our ears and imaginations.  I miss the hugs at the end of the day, the high fives and smiles and "Hi Mrs. Conley!" as I walked past former and even future classes.

I miss 'my kids'.

When I think about what it was that I really wanted to pack up in those boxes, the things that had helped make those walls a true classroom, it wasn't things...it was children.  The connection with the little humans in those blue plastic chairs is bigger and more meaningful than all the other 'stuff' teaching entails.

Recently, I made a discovery in both the physical world as well as my memory.  My guest room closet is chock full of crafting supplies and the odds and ends of life.  It's a large closet, and since Houston homes don't boast basements as part of their floor plans, it serves as a perfect space to house part of the boxes I have from my classroom.

I was searching for something one day when I came across a yellow folder.  The sight of it took me back to my last day, when I was packing up my classroom...

Peppered in among the professional development materials, binders filled with lesson plans, and an entire classroom library were little treasures I'd discovered in a yellow folder on a high shelf in the corner of my classroom.  The word 'overstuffed' isn't nearly adequate to describe the chaotic bundle of papers housed within those lemon-colored pockets.

Of all the things my dear friend and I boxed and taped and labeled within those walls, that folder held secrets.  Ten years worth of magical messages scratched on notebook paper, construction paper, once-sticky Post-it notes, folded heart-shaped paper.  Messages written in pencil and crayon, pen and paint, glitter and boldly-line permanent marker--a sign that the sender really meant business.

When I pulled that folder from the shelf in my craft closet, tumbling out came letter after letter, card after card, picture after picture...child-like handwriting filled the pages with wobbly letters and uneven spacing.  Stick figures and flowers danced in a sea of familiar suns; a big yellow circle encircled by bold yellow rays radiating from every direction.  Soon my tears were blurring the messages of love and care, notes of thanks and hello; some rushed while others meticulously completed over a lengthy period of time.  The pages all shared the same theme.  A connection was made.  These notes, these cards and pictures and random cut-out shapes with kid art covering their surfaces are like gold.  They're the reason I went in to teaching, the reason I miss it so desperately, and the reason I am so blessed to have spent a decade of my life making those connections.

Whether I 'go back into teaching' or not, I carry with me the things that made my career worthwhile.  They removed the shade covering the lifelong passion light in my heart and reassure me that no matter where the path may lead, I have some pretty amazing kids to thank for giving me the reason to keep going.