The last time I didn’t even think about being “strong” or “resilient” or “brave,” all of which others ascribed to me. It was just dealing with what was in front of me last January: my partner, collapsed in cardiac arrest in an airport; people materializing out of line behind us to help; someone running for a machine in a plastic case that, with one shock, brought him back to me.
That, I told people later, was the easy part. What followed was not, but I was in such a state of shock and awe at the miracles unfolding to help us every step of the way that the difficulties seemed small by comparison.
Have to sleep on a fold-out chair in a freezing hospital room for two weeks? Not a biggie because I got him back. No clothing or toiletries because they went home on the plane without you? There’s a local friend who can make a Target run, and there’s your beloved, alive in that hospital bed. Running out of cash and nowhere near an ATM? Another local friend arranges for a large sum to be delivered to you. Have to eat what passes for meals (Spam musubi! Japanese green tea!) in the hospital cafeteria because there are no other reasonably close options? No problem. (I love Spam musubi and green tea.)
And at the end of it all, super-competent professionals will open his chest and bypass those clogged arteries with great amounts of TLC before, during and after.
After that, I returned to teach the third week of the spring semester. I felt a little punch-drunk but grateful. And two weeks later, he came home, too, and grew stronger and healthier each week. He even wanted to travel to British Columbia, our usual summer trip, where he walked miles he couldn’t have done before, alone and with me. I was relaxed and happy.
But now, finishing the first four weeks of the new fall semester, even after spending many hours prepping over the summer, I am in a daily state of high anxiety. I’m teaching what feels like two brand new classes, though they are not—just ones I haven’t done lately. One I haven’t taught for more than two decades because my colleague who retired in May taught it so well for so long. The other now I’m doing without using a textbook, which puts the big whammy on me to create PowerPoints and lectures with all the information I’ll put on quizzes. And those quizzes? All online on a platform I’ve used only slightly.
Fortunately, I have young students who are so much more technologically savvy than I. But every day when I go into class, I brace for the inevitable: “I can’t get to the quiz,” or “It said I got this answer wrong, but you said in class that it was xyz,” or “Did you say you were going to put that online?” Yes, I say, I thought I did. And then, with a student over my shoulder as I sit at the computer in the classroom, we look, and the one I’m supposed to be teaching points to something on the screen and says, “What if you do this?” And she’s right, and I’m grateful and say so.
But the upshot is: I’m feeling terribly incompetent at my job, slow to learn this new technology and put together new lessons, and the knot in my stomach has been growing larger each week. The learning curve feels vertical right now, and I’m not used to that. My confidence stems from my competence, and both are shaky at the moment.
I thought going away to Tahoe last weekend would help, and it did. Walking around Sugar Pine Point and marveling at how high the water is in the lake after its super-snowy winter restoreth my soul. I cut his hair beneath pine trees next to our cute cabin on the west shore. But then we’d go inside to deal with the hinky internet connection, and I’d want to tear my hair out. I spent the first evening and much of the night in a swivet because so much of what I need to do now relies on a fast internet connection. I’m not used to getting thrown offline (literally and metaphorically).
The man who’d been brought back to life and had his heart repaired said that first night in our small cabin, “Now don’t you go having a heart attack over this stuff.”
And he was right, of course. But the free-floating anxiety remained.
I know how to calm myself. I start every morning with meditation. I was doing yoga this summer three times a week, often in my backyard, my favorite place to practice, sometimes with a dear friend, sometimes alone. I love to take long walks and breathe deeply.
All that went to hell when the semester started, and suddenly I had to be at a workplace about 9 a.m. to teach an hour later and be there all day without any break until about 6 p.m.
“Like normal people,” said the man with the repaired heart. “Like regular teachers.”
Well, yes. But for years I’ve floated into school about 11 a.m.ish, taught much of the afternoon, had an hour or two break and then gone back for a night class, often leaving campus about 10 p.m. Still a nine- or ten-hour day, but at hours that work better for me. And those classes were easier, I told the heart patient.
“Really?” he said. “Putting out the paper once a month? You used to want to kill those kids. You had to say the same things over and over, and they still didn’t get it. Now you don’t put out an actual paper; it’s all online. That’s not easier?”
Well, yes, I had to admit. Through the end of last semester I was looking over students’ stories before they went online AND guiding them through the rigors of putting out a paper in print.
“But newswriting,” I whined. “I’m back to teaching newswriting.”
I’m watching students struggle with this new way of arranging and writing information. I’m not at all sure that I’m teaching it effectively, this class that resembles a composition class—so much to read and offer suggestions, let them try again, then I read and comment again. Repeat as needed for each student.
“But it’s all online,” said the man who loves me. “I’ve watched you grade those things, and it’s so much faster, you’re telling me.”
That’s true, but all the hours I’m spending creating those lessons and exercises to put online…
“But then you have those things for next semester,” said the Pollyanna in my life.
He’s right, of course—he’s usually right—but still, a teensy part of me wants to kick him.
But it’s true: Every week I find that I’m asking fewer questions of people who know a lot more about this newfangled stuff than I do, even if I am still making lots of mistakes when I confront all these new moving parts. I might even be getting a wee bit faster at using the fancy-dancy system, which does make things easier for students, and one day, perhaps me, too.
I’ve had a lot of help from patient people. More than once this summer from a newer, very patient friend who teaches part-time on two campuses and is juggling more than I am at half the pay. And the most recent support guy I called for help (only a 15-minute call, down from the usual half-hour ones), when I pre-empted him with a “oh, I know how to do this,” responded with, “See? You’re getting it.”
“You’re a good teacher,” I told him.
“So are you,” he said, which brought tears to my eyes.
I have to remind myself that it’s good to be sent back to beginner’s mind now and then. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re old and out of touch. Dealing with new information and life stuff is what my students experience every day. It’s also what happens when you get to restart your life after it suddenly ends.
That’s when the silver lining appears: Had he not been resurrected at the airport, I’d still be going through all the stress of doing the old job in a new way—alone. Had angels not emerged around every corner of our journey, back at home this man would not be feeding me dinner many nights—baked fish and green beans one night, crab legs and corn another. Had my teaching schedule not changed, I wouldn’t have had these evenings with him.
Had the talented, kind folks who repaired his flabby heart not turned it into a snappy one, as the surgeon said, I would not be sitting on his sofa, working on his laptop, only to look up and see him standing there holding a small bowl. Creamy vanilla ice cream and fresh, sliced peaches.
“Here,” he says, and I close the laptop.
And he sits beside me with his own bowl as we “mmmm” and smile at each other. Perhaps this, too, is resilience, the stepping back to appreciate something sweet.
The knot in my stomach subsides as cool ice cream slides down my throat, as the warmth of someone who’s been looking out for me for almost three decades seeps into me again, and I inhale deeply, happily.