Borders & Frontiers

Note:  Since it’s late, this entry is going to be sort of an open letter to my own brain.  I’d call it a beginning point into one of my many lines of inquiry, a journey should start with a question yes?, but in reality this question has been crystallizing for a while.  Either way, my six faithful readers are duly warned.  While things can get awesome in my brain, they can also get a little weird.

Dear Brain,

Awesome fucking question tonight.  When does a border become a frontier?  I instantly added a slew of corollaries and ancillaries and capillaries (not sure about the usage of the first two, so I threw in the third so I at least have a sentence with parallel structure).  Anyways, here are a few of them: when does a frontier become a border? do both frontiers and borders have valid purposes?  who is benefitted and who is harmed at both borders and frontiers?  Frankly brain, I’m surprised you have not firmed this question up earlier, because it’s seriously all around you and so clearly it is trying to get your attention.

You spent a third of last year’s curriculum discussing the idea of borders, physical, social, emotional, what it means to cross them, the function they do or do not serve.  I wonder if you, as any love struck parent is, were so entranced by the kid’s thinking on the subject that you did not think about it yourself, apart from the curriculum design.  I know we were shocked by the fact that the U.S. did not always have borders.  It shocks me a little still actually, or is that grief? hard to tell the difference sometimes.  There was more than a hundred years until we thought we officially needed to protect something.  Did our shit get more valuable?  Did we get more full of ourselves?  Both?  Neither?

The last few months you have clearly continued circling this investigation.  There have been multiple moments, especially at dance Monday nights, where you can feel the suspension, the pull between points of new and old.  However, not once have you ever named it a border.  Instead, you always speak to yourself of a frontier.  Maybe it’s too much Little House on the Prairie as a kid, Laura Ingalls Wilder drunk with space and confidence on the pages of her books, Melissa Gilbert not giving a crap about her horsey teeth and hawkish nose as she run-stumbles down the hill in the TV show trailer.  But seriously, you always call it a frontier.  And it delights you, that feeling of frontier, makes you a little drunken yourself, so much so that you have pages of mostly nonsensical writing on the subject, every few lines you exclaim, “Who lives like this?” in bewildered joy.  And now you’re watching your friends doing the same, and true they’re being pushed into frontier living, choices to stay in comfort stripped against their wills sometimes, but it is intoxicating.  The ‘not dying amidst the struggle’ makes them realer, real enough to want to bite them they’re so three dimensional, it makes them more visionary, more grounded, and all the other good woo-woo words that don’t adequately mirror their reality.

It also makes them exhausted…I can see that.  And maybe that’s why we stay at borders, even if the forest is alluring as all hell from the clearing (DAMN YOU Joseph Chilton Pearce!!  Crack in the Cosmic Egg being one of the many books I’ve read in the last five months that explores the border/frontier duality ((did I just use the word duality?  that feels very smart at this time of night))).  We don’t have the time, energy, or other resources needed on the frontier.  In fact, we’re tired enough of a style of living that disconnects and depletes us that some actually believe that building and enforcing more borders to be a restorative action.  How is chopping up physical and spiritual territory and refusing to move between the sections because of our fear of scarcity, ever supposed to be restorative?  Clearly brain we are not speaking as one with it all figured out–you know the number of conversations we’ve had to have about their being no actual need to operate from a scarcity mentality.  And sadly, the number of times we never actually caught on that that was what we were doing.  Then you only saw it in retrospect, if at all.

So what turns a border into a frontier?  (Geez, you were just writing a piece called Passport two nights ago)  Part of me thinks it doesn’t matter because it happens whether you monitor it or not.  One day you’re sitting, standing, or lying down curled up in a ball, unable or unwilling to cross a certain line or lines for various reasons, some known and some unknown.  The next day, maybe the weather is a little warmer, maybe you had a good night’s sleep, maybe something catches your eye on the other side, and WHAM!  you are on your way to being an adventurer, a frontier person that would do Laura Ingalls Wilder proud.  But.  But….if I knew how it happened, couldn’t I turn more borders into more frontiers for me and for more people?  That’s the intrigue, the pull of this particular question.  Well, that and, trying to understand how we travel in this world.  Why do some people get stuck irrevocably and some do not?  How is it possible that we’re just expected to be born and pick up enough stuff along the way to fashion a life by the time we die–I come from the world of high stakes testing and public education and even I find that to be a rather unreasonable expectation.  Our movement or lack thereof seems central to this life-making.

Overall, I don’t know that I do, or ever will, have a me acceptable answer for myself on this one.  I wonder if partly, as times change definitions change with the struggle and love of many, and what one generation saw as a border, another sees as a frontier.  I think of my own students who now embrace an amazingly wide range of sexuality and gender expressions.  I grew up with hearing how “gay” something was as a generic form of insult, but I will now watch boys hug their friends, defend transgender people, and rock the skinny jeans with, what looks like to me, total lack of social punishment.  They didn’t grow up with sexuality as a border like I did.  I’m happy for them, and with maybe more humility we’ll learn from the less hemmed in how they do it.

Thanks for listening brain.  I remain yours in this curious pursuit, this mystical walkabout…Chelsea

p.s. a little Dave Eggers from his book I just finished tonight…Heroes of the Frontier (nope, not lying, that’s actually the title): “Instead, at this moment, she thought she was right about everything.  That we can leave.  That we have a right to leave.  That very often we must leave.  That only having left could she and her children achieve something like sublimity, that without movement there is no struggle, and without struggle there is no purpose, and without purpose there is nothing at all.  She wanted to tell every mother, every father: There is meaning in motion.”


Breaking Up is Hard to Do

I’m sad.

Not how I intended to start this post, full of sage wisdom, but true nonetheless.  I was making part of a friend’s birthday present last week and as I was cutting strips of paper I started to feel the wet cement of sadness filling my eyes and ears, making my breath stick to my ribs.  When I paused to question what was happening, I realized that I was cutting the strips in the shape of bulletin board borders.  July is almost over.  I will not be back in the classroom in a few weeks, yet the habit body is deeply entrenched.  I find myself slowing down, frantically planning for last minute details, and starting to draw a ritual deep breath…for nothing.

People get plenty of permission to be sad after a death or a romantic breakup, but try leaving a job, a city, a faith, and not only are you supposed to have a plan, but you are supposed to be excited about it.  Even if you have a dear and varied tribe that encourages you to feel your feelings, it doesn’t quite make sense in the face of a lifetime of absorbed lessons.  There is no free pass for therapy shopping, therapy eating, or even just therapy.  There is definitely less patience for emotional landmines.

When my first ever boyfriend dumped me, after two days of crying and not eating, I came into the kitchen for some food and the dish soap had sunflowers on the bottle.  My alarmed roommate entered a few minutes later to find me clutching the bottle to my chest and wailing.  “Ran-dall uuuuused to call me….SUNFLOWER!!!” I answered in reply to her question.  I promptly went back to bed for another few days.  Years later, I am currently watching a friend go through the same thing, never knowing when a great undertow of sadness will suddenly unseat her.  It’s both an exasperating part of healing and a testament to how deeply you’ve let the love enter.

Thus, instead of running from the stirrings this week, I am trying to let them take up whatever space they need.  In service of that I thought I’d share a (partial) list of landmines I expect I will trip over this year:

1. Free food (I know, y’all thought I was going to start out all heavy)–There will be a point this year when someone gives me food I didn’t expect on a long or trying day and I will lose my shit.  It’s not the food itself that I will miss.  At most schools, with maybe the exception of my last one, it was 90% junk food.  It was the knowledge that someone thought of you, someone approached you with generosity instead of expectation.  I find this especially true when parents cook for teachers.  I always thought that, despite their occasional dives off the deep end, this plate of brownies or PTA lunch was their way of saying: “You have a part of my child’s life in your hands.  He/she/they are my best thing.  I don’t know how to do what you do.  Even after you do what you do, I’m not sure if I know the depth and breadth of what you’ve done.  But I trust you, even if it’s just because I have to.  And I’m grateful.”  I know that’s a lot to project on a plate of brownies, but snacks during the school day are pretty important.

2.  Classroom control–whatever job/s I do this year, I know I’m going to have to answer to a lot more people than I am used to.  I am sure there will come multiple moments when I have a great idea on how to do a job better and am ignored.  I can taste the anger and panic at the back of my throat of, “I could’ve done it better.”  I know this is a criticism of education, but it’s also true that the more years you’ve taught, the less micromanagement is exercised as long as you have basic classroom management: aka if the principal doesn’t get complaints, you’re pretty safe in teaching how you see fit.  I know some people may think, “But wait, don’t we always hear about teachers having to spend so much time on test prep??”  I am telling you folks that I have not paid more than a sideways glance to test prep in years and am none the worse for tongue lashings.

3. Awkward adolescent humor–I will hear a story, either through Facebook or in person, about the weird and funny thing a teenager did.  I will laugh, and then I will get the same sharp pain in my chest that I get now when I realize that I have not known anyone with a pet potato in months, no one has offered to make me a duct tape purse, no one at my current work clucks like a chicken when they are bored or makes drawings of their colleagues to tape to chairs when someone is out for the day.  For all the time they pretend that they’re grown–teenagers still have remarkable access to the unfiltered if someone they love and trust will play with them.  I will have to fill my hunger to play elsewhere for the time being.

4.  Always being right if I choose–I wish I could say I was enlightened enough to not miss this one, but then I would be a liar-pants-on-fire.  Even now it feels traitorous to say, but for the most part teachers stick together, even when we shouldn’t.  I’ve tried to run my classroom fairly, consciously, humanely, but I’ve also done and said petty things to kids, probably lost some of the papers I’ve been accused of losing, and ignored some things that should not have been ignored.  Do we keep our mouths shut because we’re all so tired?  Maybe.  I suspect partly we’re afraid to admit our own inconsistencies lest the whole system crumble.  Regardless of where this “all in/all out” mentality comes from, the result is the same.  The most accountability I’m ever called to outside of testing takes one of two forms: a colleague saying, “Maybe you should have (fill in the blank) but it’s not your fault (fill in the excuses)” or an administrator saying, “I know this parent is (fill in the negative adjective) but I have to let you know (fill in the vaguely worded slap on the wrist).”   Maybe I am wrong, but I think other jobs will require more real-time accountability.  Do I have the humility for that, or will I find myself saying, “They just don’t understand…”

Side note: I am glad to hear any group of people condemn police brutality, but I am personally shocked to hear the it-would-never-happen-to-me self-righteous fervor of teachers condemning them.  The theft of life should always be sickening, but if we are honest with ourselves, teachers understand where and how that sickness starts.

5.  Creating–we are always creating something new, every moment, whether we are aware of it or not, but I was aware of it almost all the time on campus.  The creation of a new curriculum, the creation of a new teacher who can finally handle the dreaded sixth period without intervention, the creation of a student who actually likes you after branding you a bitch since August.  These creations don’t solve all the problems, but they are miniature miracles and they are everywhere when you are looking.  There will be more than once this year when I will create something new.  I’ll get that delicious, this is going to be awesome feeling, and either the audience for whom I am creating will be less visible, or they’ll havefewer pressing needs than a room full of thirteen year olds, and I will miss bringing my best gifts to a room that needs them.

Through all these landmines, after the blasts detonate and the emotions move through, there will come the same quiet that comes toward the end of every breakup.  In that quiet I come back to something very important, gently and clearly, over and over again.  The things I miss about the person/job/faith/city are less about the individual or thing in question, and more about the experience of being deeply connected, aware, and thankful.  I may circle back to that thing I miss at a different time, as a different me.  It is equally true that some breakups are forever.  What I won’t do is let the reality of landmines decide the journey–past, present, or future.

Leave it Alone: AKA the practice of giving less fucks

The question: why leave a well paying job that you’re good at?  The reasons are both common and cosmic, tailored to be presentable to the audience in question at any given moment.  However, the reasons are not the answers.  The answers are still few and much less articulate.  I see them as a basket of warm laundry, straight from the dryer, digging into my hip on the walk back from the laundry room, jumbled together and inside out.  I do the work of lifting and folding so that I will eventually have something to wear.

The part I’m folding recently?  It’s an urge to redefine/add to/claim/practice an unacknowledged form of strength.  I can’t yet name that strength, that thing I’ve been hesitant to install, but part of it has to do with knowing when to leave something alone.  Until recently I have never, and I mean never, been able to do that.  From twenty minute earwax cleanings to replaying a conversation in my head for a month, I have always been a stickler for detail, dogged perseverance, and my favorite, ownership.

A few years ago, the night before my student’s biggest paper of the year was due, I was driving back from dinner with a colleague and friend after twelve straight hours of teaching and managing people’s anxiety around the project.  We saw Fernando, a young man who was supposed to come to the computer lab after school, riding his bike across the intersection we were just about to drive through.  My friend made a quick lane change and swung around the corner where we started to shout his name.  “Fernando,” my partner scolded when he stopped, “don’t you know that Miss Delaney and I have been driving around all night looking for you??  Why weren’t you in the computer lab??”  I marveled at her quickness, and tried to keep a straight face, but the thing that sticks with me the most?  He didn’t seem even mildly suspicious that we were lying.  You can chalk that up to caring educators, a not-too-academically-bright student, or the simple fact that he knew me as a person that squeezed, picked, and pushed with some regularity.

The contrast between the demands on a teacher and the demands on a camp counselor are sharp, and yet I still struggle.  I had just started a scheduling task that had been given to me on Monday–not future altering by any means–when it was time to go on break.  A sweet, younger counselor offered to do it for me.  I hesitated.  Would she mess it up?  Would she understand my directions completely?  Would she ask questions if she didn’t?  Would I be held responsible for her mistakes on this non-important project?  I’m sure my thank you and directions sounded a little strained when I said yes, because washing my hands in the bathroom a few minutes later I was still tempted to go back and regain my jurisdiction.  I looked at myself in the mirror: “Leave it alone or I will smack the micromanagement off your face!!”  I went to break and, surprise surprise, the world had not ended when I came back.  It hadn’t mattered.  It was wholly unremarkable, unless you count the young counselor who now felt closer to me.

I saw the same thing as I taught Creative Writing in the last few years.  Students blew my mind as they planned schedules, divvied up the workload, mediated disputes and gave each other high caliber revision feedback on their group projects.  What I’d always said I wanted: a classroom where I was invisible and they did the work, was happening.  It was as close to true co-creation as I’d ever gotten, and yet a part of me was horribly bored during project days because I wasn’t needed to make the rules, assign the importance, say what made it “good” or “bad.”  True, it was enormously pleasing to see them sip, lick, and guzzle from their own fountains, but I didn’t know what to do with myself without all my fingers in all the pies.

So, why can’t I take the advice of Elsa from Frozen and…”Let it go, let it go!!”?  Why does it feel like doing so will be a part of a newly emerging strength?  Mostly because the self-doubt and accusations can sometimes be VICIOUS when I don’t keep a careful eye on everything!! The following is a dialogue where I will be playing the part of me trying to give less fucks: “Come on lazy, what’s so special about you that you can’t put in the extra few minutes?  So what, you’re trying to rationalize and deify slacking?  Everyone else is doing their part.  People expect a certain standard of quality from you,” and on it goes.  Sometimes, in their most logical sounding form, they remind me of the magic I’ve been able to create for others through my willingness to shoulder large loads for untold miles.  Yet this new, inside out part of me with pockets flapping and buttons burning, quietly asks, “Is there more to your strength, your value, than your perfect service to others?”  I don’t know.  There seems to be all sorts of world changers big and small who really go in for heavy lifting…

but not everything is mine to lift.

And so for a while I’m going to be leaving some things alone that I normally would not.  In retrospect I see that it’s already been happening naturally on occasion, right outside my conscious vision.  Those times are delightful because of the space they open for help, for community, for rest, for ripening.  However, sometimes I know I am going to have to say to myself, as I did in that bathroom mirror: it is not yours, leave it alone.  I’ve experienced the end of the spectrum where I (try to) hold, control, and take in the effects of everything.  I need to now practice giving fewer, or even (gasp) no fucks, before I can find the middle.  For those of you that grew up with healthy boundaries practiced and modeled, this must seem like a duh, but for me it is…







Notes from the Field: Maybe

Hello from Day 39 of Delaney Walkabout!  The reality of non-teacher life has not yet set in, but the reality of a working summer has.  My general sulkiness has started to fade a little–I did after all take a sailboat (cardboard) to Sonoma yesterday.  While on board we drank milkshakes and watched Humpty Dumpty until realizing that sharks also like milkshakes.  Long story short, four first graders dragged me to safety across the ocean floor (linoleum) after our boat sank.  There could be way worse jobs than camp counselor.

There are a lot more maybes than yeses or no’s in the last five weeks.  For example, did I want to take the boat back home after it was fixed in Sonoma?  “Maybe?”  I answered, fearing the first trip had pulled my shoulder out of joint.  My yes, and especially what I call my “big yes” has always been fairly easy to hear, even when I didn’t want to hear it.  My no is getting easier to hear as I grow in trusting myself and let go more and more of my need for outside approval.  But the maybe?  It both tantalizes and annoys the crap out of me.  Will I be missing out on something if I say no?  Am I being talked into yes as I have been in the past?  What the hell do I do with maybe?  From my own estuary of passion and logic I thought I’d share what I have been trying:

1.  Does it have any stubbornness to it?  If so, my experience tells me that it might be a yes that is hiding in plain sight.  I signed up for a variety of job alerts from different services so that I can still keep my job eyes open this summer.  Each time I find one I could do I have gone through my own version of Macbeth: “To apply or not to apply, that is the question.”  However, each time a new job comes in that is feasible, it effectively washes the last job and its argument out to sea.  In contrast, I am still thinking about a movie I saw more than a year ago now.  The movie itself was terrible, but somewhere towards the end they go to Niagra Falls.  I couldn’t tell you what was happening in the scene, but the big yes was vibrating my spine with: you need to go there as soon as possible.  To have called that a maybe would be giving in to my fear of air travel and the infinitesimal chance that I will be air sick enough to puke in front of a stranger (it did happen once).  It’s taken me longer than it should’ve to comply on this one, but I am starting to plan a trip after camp is over.

2.  Make a move.  If it is a no disguised as a maybe, action will clarify it if you are listening to yourself.  One of my more recent maybes in job search land seemed like it had a little more stubbornness to it than usual, but I still couldn’t decide whether or not to apply.  I finally just sent an inquiry to the organization, asking if an eligible candidate had to be in the office for all of the 20 hours a week.  The answer: yup.  Problem solved.  There is no physical way I can give 20 in-person hours a week before camp lets out, and I am definitely not putting off Niagra Falls one more time.  Get the ball rolling somewhere and then TRUST.  You will do more for the world as you trust and follow than you ever will by giving advice and clinging to one picture of yourself.

3.  Learn to bless the maybe.  What if it’s not a secret yes or no that you are refusing to hear?  In Marge Piercy’s gorgeous poem, “The art of blessing the day,” she ends with this stanza:

What we want to change we curse and then

pick up a tool.  Bless whatever you can

with eyes and hands and tongue.  If you

can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.

What is there to bless about maybe?  I’ve spent so much time longing for the safe landing of endings and beginnings, and perhaps I will continue to do so, but maybe is about journeys.  Maybe is about being new again, at the frontier of what comforts and terrifies you, present to each moment, mundane or jaw dropping, curious.  Maybe requires and rewards you as you ask for help, even when the asking is awkward or downright incoherent.  Maybe is a great catalyst in creating community, asking those around you to wait with you, not knowing the results, unable to calm their fears since you are currently busy with your own.

Maybe brings perspective to your bullshit.  When I did most things in my life on autopilot there was tons of energy for pointless obsessing about nothing.  But now that I am here, more engaged in living, so many of the Tasmanian devils are curled up sleeping.  I scratch their fuzzy bellies occasionally but they are hesitant to wake up.  And so where I thought maybe would create more noise, more chaos, it has actually given me the opposite.  The gratitude for the space and the quiet is immense.  If gratitude were a meal, right now it is stuck in my teeth, all over my face, and down the front of my shirt.

Maybe is for building a life, not an institution.  The exhale I have each time I think or write that thought is like the removal of the bra at the end of a long day (sorry guys, you’ll have to trust me on this one).  Institutions need products to prove their worth, be they tangible or not.  They could not do that if they took the meandering path of maybe.  I however am trying to build a life.  Who knows when and if an institution will become part of that life again, BUT THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING.  I had it wrong for a really long time.

I am trying to bless the maybe, whether it be in job possibilities or multiple offers for weekend plans when I’ve only been used to grading papers.  Remember, the sharks in these waters are not as scary as we thought they were…they like milkshakes.