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Falling Upward

I’ve worked with a lot of students since I began teaching in 1987. Not just different nationalities, but students who came with all kinds of challenges and strengths. I marveled at the myriad personalities that I got to work with — some malleable, trusting and easy going, others requiring a more sensitive approach to get them to open up, still others needing me to grow a thicker skin and nerves of steel. I’ve seen it all, the whole spectrum and then some. Many have come to mind in reflection in this past year, always with gratitude for all they taught me, especially the challenges.

Now, at St. Aidan’s, I’ve been privileged  to work with a new type of student — the new Canadian who must learn to speak English. I have worked with these young people since last fall, and have enjoyed the challenge of introducing a new alphabet, with new sounds, to them. Some have already accepted their new status and are more than ready to learn, others are still longing for their homeland and reluctant. I’m sure I barely understand the effects of the reasons they fled their country to begin with.

The long, fancy explanations teachers are so fond of giving, as a “sage on a stage,” no longer work (oh wait, they never did). Now I depend on gestures, simple words and acting to get the meanings out. Sometimes I get smiles of comprehension, other times I get puzzled looks. How do you explain that the letter “a” is sometimes long, sometimes short? Or that “c” can be pronounced two ways? English seems cruel with all its exceptions and rules that break.

Once, I brought an Arabic/English picture dictionary from the library to go over with IMG_0579Stephania, a new student from Eritrea. She showed her alphabet and it was a good exercise in empathy for me. The  characters of that language all seemed the same to me, the subtle differences incomprehensible to me but no doubt plain to her. I imitated the sounds Stephania spoke, but when she corrected how I said them, I didn’t understand my mistake. I tried to say them the way she did, thinking I’d aced it, but she kept shaking her head in laughter.

I’ve often remembered that experience when I see students struggle with what seems obvious to me. For example, it never occurred to me before how similar the letters “t” and “f” look. Explaining something once doesn’t do the trick, it is a process that will be years in the making as they acquire a new language and a new culture. Any successful connection that occurs during a lesson is a joy.

I’ve been a “new language learner” myself in the last year, as I’ve navigated my way through leaving full time teaching. My new dialect is the language of the “second half of life”. In the first half of life, I was preoccupied, as people rightly are before their 50’s, with establishing myself — career, home ownership, parenting…building a proper platform for my life. The game was all about establishing an identity. In teaching, I took courses, learned the latest programs, taught after school and lunch clubs, bravely staged concerts, and said yes to a lot of extras, as many, many teachers do.   Life was all about the word “more”.

Now life has become about less rather than more, and I am in the midst of a paradox with the new language I’m learning. Where my old language said, “Work hard. White knuckle your way through,” the new language is gently encouraging me to begin letting go, reminding me that less might translate to more.

Until I was faced with the task of letting go, I didn’t know how tightly I’d been hanging on, as if it was the only identity I could have. But as I’ve been letting go, I feel I am gaining more in an upside down way. Saying no to the busy life I once led has felt like a loss, but there is new life springing up as well.

Author Richard Rohr describes this paradox beautifully in the phrase (and book) 9780470907757_p0_v1_s260x420Falling Upward”. At first glance, falling hardly seems to describe the first half of life. Isn’t it all about rising, achieving, accomplishing, and performing? I think falling refers, not to the first half of life, but to our transition into the second half of life. I didn’t have to manufacture the falling part, it happened when I couldn’t do it anymore. I think this must come naturally in every life.  Letting go feels like falling, and falling always involves suffering of some kind. Suffering is never fun, but  headaches have served to topple the illusion that I was in control, or that I could even build a tower of success. My little kingdom had to fail me.

I’m so grateful I’ve heard God call me to a kingdom greater than my small self, which in Christian language Jesus calls the Kingdom of God. It’s what Rohr meant by the phrase “falling upward”. Now it’s no longer about me looking good, or making money. The picture has grown smaller in some ways, but in the most important ways, life has gotten bigger.

I hope and pray that my life will have more of an inner generativity. God in the second half of life is showing me a way to do this as I’m writing and editing more than I ever have. Most days it feels like chicken scratches, but I’ve heard a clear call that this is where God has called me to. When I write, I feel like I am falling upward, falling towards God, falling in love. I feel I am where God wants me to be.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. John 12:24

Reflections on 2014

This past year was a year unlike any other as it marked a transition in my work situation. I’ve written far less blogposts during this time because it became difficult to know “what to say” as I underwent a major change in my life circumstances.

In mid-April, I left school and sat in my car and wept. I was going on medical leave for headaches and while I was (and am) incredibly grateful for the break, I felt torn and sad about leaving my school of 11 years and career of 20+ years. Staying with the decision was very difficult at first, to say the least. How could it be right when it felt so wrong? I felt I was letting many people down, especially my students. As someone who outwardly gave an optimistic face to the world, I’m sure many never guessed the turmoil and soul searching that led to the decision to say yes to what my friends and doctor were telling me.

In the nine months since this decision, I can say it has been a wise one, and probably one of the best of my life. Finding yourself in a “dark wood” (as Dante famously called a difficult time), made me dependent on God like never before, and I’m so grateful that I was not left alone in the impenetrable place of chronic headaches.

I could not have done it without many mercies that came my way. Here’s a list of the many ways God was faithful when I cried out, “Help me!”:

  • Community – God regularly provided the prayers and guidance of many people I have come to see as angels, both in and outside the church. My faith community of Watershed has given invaluable counsel, love and prayers during this time.
  • Faithful friends  – I’m grateful for two angels in particular — my friends, our pastor Paul and his wife Bev. Their counsel, much of it through email since I love writing, got me through many days of uncertainty and lostness. They 4697399154_5bcddffd3fremain an abundant source of wisdom, both in emails and in person in our community life together. As they do with so many, they stood with me and saw God in me when I felt less than human to myself. I hope that I will pass this on to others.
  • Outside help – The MB Teacher’s Society has had my back as well, giving step by step guidance and advice on how to continue, as has my wise doctor.
  • Signs – Along the way, there were also many songs, books, sermons, events, people, dreams, “synchronicities” that came my way — which continued to prove to me that I was being nudged along by an Unseen Hand. Two notable ones were:
    • When I initially went off work, I had a visceral experience in the middle of a bad night of praying “Help me” to God. It is hard to describe. It was more like God prayed it for me, bringing me to a confession that my own efforts on the spiritual journey were inadequate. When I shared this with Paul and Bev the next day, they said they had just read a meditation that morning entitled “Help me”, where a Canaanite woman in scripture begged Jesus to help her and desperately cried out when he ignored her the first time. “She pleaded again, ‘Lord, help me!’” (Matthew 15:25) At the time, it seemed like a sign that God had heard me, and it gave my heart peace. My efforts had taken me only so far on the spiritual journey before their inadequacy showed up. I’ve read that this is the goal of the crisis of faith: total surrender. A knowledge that, like the AA people say, we are completely dependent on a Higher Power. I know surrender is a lifelong process, but this moment was pivotal.
    • I discovered the song “Wasteland” from the group Needtobreathe, which perfectly articulated where I was at.
  • Meditation Room – The advice from Paul to spend each day “writing, reading and praying” in my meditation room was truly the best of all. I’m certainly no saint with a glowing halo. It’s more like I have discovered that a more contemplative life has been restorative, and has helped me take an honest look at the deeper roots of my health issues. For someone who has led a very extroverted life, the meditation room has become a magnet for me. One of the books I read this year was a historical fiction of the life of Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic who spent most of her life cloistered in a “cell” (a room)  beside a church as an “anchoress”. I began to see the meditation room as my “cell”, and it remains my favorite place to be every day.
  • Learning to use my inside voice – As I’ve written in the last blogpost, my headaches, while not gone altogether, have been eased by learning how anxious my people-pleasing had made me. Now I’ve just got to keep practicing what I’m oh so slowly learning.
  • St. Aidan’s Christian School – I was resistant at first, but as part of my “rehabilitation”, MTS mandated that I begin to volunteer. From talking to someone at Habitat one summer years ago, I learned about  a small independent school servicing immigrant students called St. Aidan’s, and chose that as my place to volunteer. I’m now up to 4 half days per week (soon to be 5), teaching English as an additional language one on one. I have been so grateful to have found a new home there, somewhere I can continue to work with young people. Grateful because for so long, I didn’t know what kind of future was left for me. I’ve felt a bit like an immigrant myself, having left the “old country” of my former work. The administrator there has been so welcoming to me (as she is to all the students), and being out of the class environment has been helpful in easing the headaches. My Jewish friends Arthur and Debbie have a Hebrew word, “bashert”, which means “meant to be.” I feel that my being led to St. Aidan’s has a “bashert” feel about it.
  • Reading – Besides writing my way through the dark wood, reading has provided another flashlight. Here are my favorite fiction and non-fiction books of the year:

I did many monarch releases in 2014, but one stands out for me. In July, our monarch committee did our annual workshop, and this year had been scheduled to take place in the school I’d just left. It stirred up all kinds of feelings to return. As usual for our workshops, we held a monarch release at the end.

I found myself in the gardens I’d planted, saying good-bye to the monarchs with the

Photo by Holli Webb Hearn

Photo by Holli Webb Hearn

adult workshop participants and children from the daycare. As usual, I invite people to say a prayer, which the monarchs can “wing their way to their Creator”. It’s a speech I’ve given countless times, but this time I could barely get through without getting choked up. I offered up a silent prayer for myself, and for everyone who is searching for a way out of a dark wood.

Those monarchs flew well that day. Just look what kind of a Creator we have. One who answers prayers with such abundance, and with far greater imagination than I ever could have.

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