Friday, December 4, 2015

replenishing reflections

Today’s prompt comes from the writer Kathleen Jowitt, author of the forthcoming book, Speak its Name:

As the year ends, and we look back at the joys, achievements and disappointments of the past twelve months, it's worth taking some time to recognise what our efforts have demanded of us and where our resources have been depleted.

Whether you have spent 2015 bringing some long-cherished project to fruition or simply trying to keep your head above water, it's likely that this has come at some cost to you.

How can you replenish your (physical, mental, spiritual and/or emotional) resources? What do you need most of all at this moment?

“Replenishment” is a very timely topic for me, as it comes on the heels of a stomach bug that kept me in bed all of yesterday. Today I am parched and depleted.

Parched and depleted also seems like an apt description for how I have been feeling this fall, not only physically, but emotionally, intellectually, and creatively.

The last time I wrote, it was in response to the question, “What surprised you this year?” Before getting sidetracked by the latest mass shooting and the Trump campaign, I had intended to write about something more personal: being surprised by my own limitations. I have often felt, somewhat naively, I’m sure, that I have a good deal of control over how my body, soul, and psyche are functioning. If I start to feel depleted physically, I change my diet, or focus on sleep, or take some rest. If my emotions are aflutter, I decrease my caffeine (and/or alcohol) consumption, or take a yoga class, or write in my journal. In other words, when I feel depleted, my tendency is to respond with action rather than reflection. This type of response has both benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, it’s very empowering to feel as if we have this much agency over how we function in the world. On the other, this approach can lead us to have too much faith in our own abilities; consequently, we don’t allow ourselves to suffer without feeling as if it’s a sort of failure.

Last year, my good friend went through a difficult break-up with his girlfriend. Afterward, he wrote that he was taking some time to “honor” the difficult emotions this break-up had brought about. By doing this, he was able to validate these feelings and confront his suffering, which is another form of action. His email was a revelation. Honor was such an eloquent—and apt—term for what he was doing, what we need to do when we are hurting, even in small ways.

This past summer, I contracted Lyme disease. I was in the midst of a challenging mountain bike race when I sensed that something was amiss. Normally, in this type of race, I relish the hill climbs, and let them compensate for my lack of technical skill on the rocky terrain. But during this particular race, I found myself breathing heavily on the very first hill, and my legs ached from the first pedal stroke.

A week later, I received the Lyme diagnosis. My immediate reaction was, “How can I get through this quickly and without losing any of my fitness?” There had to be a natural remedy, a miracle diet, in addition to the antibiotics. Don’t get me wrong; I live in Connecticut, so I know all about the terrifying unknowns that are associated with this all-too-common disease. But still, I figured that the right course of action would combat the sometimes debilitating symptoms: achy joints, overwhelming fatigue, brain fog. I read about something called the “Buhner Protocol,” a naturopathic approach to healing Lyme, and bought all of the supplements.

But the symptoms persisted. In September, I went to see a naturopath. I was feeling increasingly anxious, mostly because the Vermont 50, my biggest race of the year, was approaching. The naturopath suggested that I direct my focus toward healing, rather than maintaining a fitness level that was clearly out of my reach at the moment. “Is it possible for you to lower your expectations for now?” she asked. I didn’t know. I followed her regimen of supplements and home remedies, but neglected to take her advice about slowing down. I completed the race, a gorgeous but grueling 50-mile mountain bike ride on dirt roads and singletrack trails, with almost 10,000 feet of elevation gain. But I did not enjoy it as I usually do. It felt, as everything else did, like a task.

Two and a half months later, as I sit reflecting on this autumn—on my teaching, my physical activity, my emotional state—I come back to the terms parched and depleted. Physically, I haven’t felt like myself since July. I continue to run and bike, but sometimes I find myself close to tears, frustrated because I can’t get back to that place of optimism and vigor and clarity. And this frustration has plagued me in my teaching this semester as well. Normally, at this point, I am thinking, “It’s the end of the semester already, and I still have so much to teach my students!” Now, I find myself wondering what I will do with them for the next week, until classes end. As if I needed further proof of my lack of energy and enthusiasm in my teaching this semester, I received my first-ever negative review on “Rate my Professor.” Maybe it’s time for a new career, I thought, ignoring all of the other positive reviews on the site. Clearly, I’ve lost my mojo.

So, how to replenish? I think back to my friend’s email, about “honoring” his emotions. This is what my naturopath was trying to tell me, too: you have to acknowledge your limitations, allow your body and brain and soul the rest and attention for which they are crying out.

Once upon a time, I wrote in a journal almost daily. I would come home from work, make myself a cup of coffee or tea, and spend a few minutes, or a couple of hours, writing. I needed this time and this space to process the day. At some point, without really thinking about it, I began to see this habit as juvenile and stopped doing it. But the journals were my way of doing exactly what my friend was doing—honoring, and thereby validating, his emotions. It’s what I try to teach my students: you need to confront difficulty, to understand why something is difficult, in order to move past it. This involves reflection (or what we call “metacognition” in the classroom).

Reverb allows me this reflection, to a certain extent. It’s why I look forward to this project every year. But as yet, I haven’t been able to carry this reflection through the other eleven months of the year (in fact, I remember writing one blog post a few years ago on how I planned to do more of “nothing” in the coming year. Did I? Don’t think so). So, in response to the question about what I need to do to replenish, I’m not really sure, but I’m guessing the answer will come only after I have taken the time to reflect on why I’m so parched and depleted. When I’m tired, I tend to make a pot of coffee rather than taking a nap. Keep the engine chugging. It’s a habit I hope to break this year, because it’s a caffeine-powered cycle that only leads to further depletion and parched-ness.

And I won’t be looking for a new job, or not just yet. This morning, I received an email inviting me to a workshop on “Reflecting on Your Teaching Practices,” which seems like a sign. As Mother Teresa said, “To keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it.”


Corinne Anderson said...

Thinking of Honoring as a replenishing practice is wonderful.

Kathleen Jowitt said...

That sounds so frustrating! Wishing you a full and joyous recovery, with all the rest and refreshment that you need. Your friend sounds very wise.