April 2018

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Brown M&M Day

If energy is symbolized by M&Ms, which of course it is, then I awoke with very few M&Ms on Monday, and the ones I did have were brown. None of them were peanut. Just a few plain brown M&Ms.

My alarm awakened me at 8 am to go on a bike ride with Ann, but I just couldn't get up, so I reset the alarm for 8:30. Again, there was no way I could rise, so Ann suggested we just stay home today (bless her!), and I went back to sleep. At 11 am, I woke up a bit hungry, so I ate some breakfast (no yoga today) and went back to bed again. When I awoke again at 4 pm, I felt like my old self (and though my old self keeps getting older, I enjoy that self more than the one that keeps sleeping.)

Why was I so weary? At the Samarya Center where I do yoga, we are discussing Svadhyaya, often translated as "self-study," this month, and this niyama is not my strong point, so it takes me a lot of energy.

Perhaps I was svadhyaya-ing. I thought and I thought. (Sounds like a Dr. Seuss character.) The previous two days I had skipped my naps in an experiment to see if I could make it with less sleep, and perhaps that partially explained my weariness, but I decided to keep looking around in the cob-webby corners of my spirit to see if there might be another reason lurking there.

The previous day, Sunday, I had gone to church and then to my teachers' writing group (which I love), where I had gotten feedback on a piece I have written about leaving my career in education. The piece begins in tears but ends cheerfully.

These smart teacher-writers advised me on the piece. Edie said, "It doesn't have to end happily, to be tied up in a bow at the end. You could have mixed emotions," and Doug said, "The question is both what do you take with you and what must you leave behind."

In response to a different piece years ago, Sister Jen similarly said, "Your cheeriness is a little hard to believe."

So in those hours I spent sleeping the next day, I searched, and I searched. Am I really super-depressed and in denial? It seemed possible. I had worked in education for a fourth of a century and had finally found a job that met my spirit in a school that served a large number of students living in poverty, many of them immigrants from the world's poorest and most violent countries. My students were bright and often delightful. And then I had to leave for brain surgery.

After years teaching in different schools, working for an educational online company, and consulting for a national education reform organization, I had finally found work where I felt like I could meet the needs of at least some students and in this small way make the world a little more just, a little more peaceful.

And then, I had my first brain tumor and had to leave the classroom. When I went back, I worked as an instructional coach with teachers. And then, I had my second brain tumor and had to leave any career in education altogether.

But as I searched my spirit on Monday, I did not find a dark corner of hidden depression. I found joy in the fact that I was still living and could continue to work for social justice in a new field. That joy I have written about.

I also found a new emotion in response to leaving my career: relief. I am just being honest here. So yes, really.

I can't think of any U.S. career more important than a career aimed at educating youth, especially those living in poverty. (and, more truth-telling, especially the youngest ones.) Helping change the picture for young people living in poverty has been my life's mission so far. 

So why was I relieved to leave this career when there's clearly so much more to do? I thought and I thought. It's just so darn hard for me to see an answer in the socio-economic structure of our country, so it's hard for me to figure out how I could make a systemic difference. 

And if I can't do it, who can? After all, I was born to privileges, including the privilege of an excellent education. I should be able to make a difference or at least see how a difference could be made.

And if not me, Bill Gates even threw his smart people and his wealthy foundation into the project of improving America's high schools. His foundation focused on the small schools' movement. My partner Ann was a "coach" for schools trying to make this move, and I worked on the staff of a large school that divided into small schools, then worked in one of those small schools (which I loved.) His foundation gave up. 

But still, too much was too wrong for too many people living in poverty in this country, and I had thrown in the towel: I could make a small difference for some students in this one small school, but the larger system was still wrong. 

While working in this school, I tried to make peace with making a difference in this community. I adopted the mantra, "Do the right thing, even if doesn't make a difference." I read and re-read these words from Oscar Romero:

 It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
 The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
 of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of
 saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
 day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
 knowing that they hold future promise.
 We lay foundations that will need further development.
 We provide yeast that produces effects 
far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
 liberation in realizing this.
 This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
 It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
 a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's
 grace to enter and do the rest.
 We may never see the end results, but that is the
 difference between the master builder and the worker.

I wanted to believe Oscar Romero's words, and to recognize myself as a worker and not the master builder, but I also heard and re-heard Marianne Williamson's words: 

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.

If indeed I had such power, why could I not figure out how to use it to make this country a more just place? The question pestered me and wore me out, so that even in my most successful venture, I felt overwhelmed by all that I could not do.

So, I think that’s the truth. No wonder I had to sleep all day. And no wonder it was in some sense a relief to leave the heavy burden of changing a giant system even as I left the joys of teaching.

Today, I’m rested and back to my more cheerful self. How do I integrate that new awareness? Do I give up on seeking socio-economic justice in my country?

No, I don’t think so, but somehow maybe with this new chance, this new career, I can find a more soulful and humble way to find peace in doing what I can.

I am getting, in some sense, a do-over. Or at least a new-do.


  1. Mary, I hear your voice so clearly in this piece. I'm not sure exactly why--maybe because I have so many years ahead in education--but this piece makes me tear up.

  2. Dear Mary, I am happy to read your thoughts, so many I have also had. I hope we can plan an outing together sometime soon. Here's what the Talmud says: It is not yours to complete the task, neither are you permitted to lay it down.
    with love, Catherine

  3. Beautiful entry, Mary. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. Love this piece. So much depth. Such a familiar and powerful curiosity pervades it. Thank you. When I first retired I slept and slept and slept. I too realized it was about relief and recovery. Finding what is mine to do, in every moment, seems to me to be the challenge and blessing of being alive. I love how you write about that very challenge, the essence of being human. Your writing inspires me.

  5. So true Mary, how do we continue to stand in what Parker Palmer talks about as the "tragic gap" - that space between our current reality and where we could and ought to be while staying true to ourselves and not lose hope.

    I appreciated seeing these quotes again as a reminder of how we each are uniquely endowed to serve and we are in this giant tapestry that is beyond our comprehension.

    Love, Rose


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