Savior, Martyr, Enabler: The Good of the Many vs The Good of the Few…or The One

The Kirk/Spock Conundrum in Relationships, Families, and Life

“Don’t be a martyr,” I was recently told during an uncomfortable discussion about time and priorities. I choked back a quick denial. Was I being a martyr? I was trying to do what was best for everyone involved, but I knew it was not what I wanted. But being a martyr — no, that was not me. Of course not.

After years of uncomfortable self-examination, I understand that the “be a good helper” and “do unto others” training of my childhood contributed to my morphing into an enabler, at least for some people in some situations. My mother, a loving, giving woman, developed a tinge of bitterness in her old age about situations where she made unappreciated sacrifices. I had seen first-hand that enabling can grow into bitter martyrdom, and I did not want that to happen to me. I (try to) articulate my needs and make sure I have as much self-indulgence as I do sacrifice, which my mother still cannot do. Not being bitter about my choices has been a priority.

I was adamant. I was not a martyr. In my experience, garden variety martyrs hold their sacrifice over other people’s heads, expecting acknowledgement that they suffer, or at least take back seat, for the greater good. I did not have that attitude. If I was making a decision for the greater good — the good of the many — I was accepting it is logical and fair to do what benefits the most people. If it was a decision that I owned and choose, there was nothing to hold over anyone else. Or so I told myself.

Like many well-trained enablers, saviors, and martyrs, I knew the literature: my Sunday school teachers and grandmother often reminded me that the last would be first in Heaven (Matthew 19:30, Mark 10:31, and Luke 13:30 — when three of the Gospels say the same thing, it’s a home run homily). 1 Corinthians 13 taught that love does not keep score, that it goes to any length to serve the Beloved. Despite no longer being Christian, the early training remains.

In my mind, I was Spock choosing to die in The Wrath of Khan, confident that his choice would ensure a better life for many people. Without intending to be melodramatic, my working to accept boundaries and time limits that did not fulfill my needs would make schedules and emotions run more smoothly for other people — and since I do not like drama and I avoid conflict, I do get some pay off for that choice. Ensuring that my desires do not complicate anyone else’s lives or possibly even make anyone else aware that I might have needs that were not being acknowledged was an acceptable choice. Instead, focusing on being grateful for the time I have with my partner and considering the importance of our relationship instead of jockeying for more time and attention would be better for everyone. That’s logical.

That is, in fact, the Spock model of martyrdom. I just did not want to accept that label.

When I consider the conversation and the context, that was probably not how I sounded. As I rewatched The Wrath of Khan, I had a eureka moment: Spock does not experience human emotions. Being a truly selfless martyr is only possible in two situations: first, when you believe that you will be rewarded in the next life (like religious martyrs) or when you are completely emotionally detached from the situation, personalities and consequences of the situation. Because I was setting up a situation where I did not expect eventual rewards, and I am emotionally invested in this relationship and our discussion of time, priorities, and attention, I was on the edge of martyrdom when I offered to accept terms that do not meet my needs. Since I still did not want to accept that label, I looked for other options.

I started scouring journals, books, and websites. I learned about the Karpman triangle, victim, persecutor, and rescuer, and after playing through a variety of conversations and situations, I decided that I sometimes play rescuer — or savior — for some situations and people, but not to a dysfunctional level. I have victim moments, and the occasional time as a persecutor, but the Karpman triangle was not the paradigm I needed to consider how to stall any martyr impulses I feel. David Emerald’s Empowerment Triangle (creator instead of victim, challenger instead of persecutor, and coach instead of rescuer) offered possibly useful ideas about how to treat the Karpman triangle and other times I tend towards saving or enabling, but again, not quite what I needed in this situation where I was bordering on being a martyr. My communication within my relationship was not toxic. I was just having trouble trusting that meeting my needs was important enough to potentially disrupt other people’s lives.

For a bit, I considered whether I might be a savior. I tried on the idea that I was saving the peace and making my partner happy by finding solo, non-intrusive ways to deal with my needs. That sounded superior to being a martyr. Being a savior would have downsides, of course, but going above and beyond to help — that is like Jimmy Carter, building houses for poor people. Rosa Parks, taking a stand for civil rights. Maybe my willingness to put my personal needs aside was the act of a savior. Eduard Ezeanu’s piece on The Savior Complex assured me that no, I was not usually a savior. I do not feel that I am better than other people because I do unappreciated things for people, and I am quite good at making sure at letting people know when I have done something that I think is noteworthy. There are not many ways I hide my light under a basket. Like any recovering enabler, I have moments when I have to consciously remember “You are never responsible for the actions of others; you are only responsible for you.” But that is where enabler and savior intersect. Being a savior is not my home base even though there are times I choose to be helpful.

Here is the script from my childhood that still sometimes drives me: I should not cause problems by articulating needs and wishes; if I am possibly the source of an issue, I must immediately solve the problem (which includes my discounting my needs, wants, and emotions) or risk having the other person decide our relationship is not worth the hassle. For years, I saw myself as the cause of problems, in the way, and something of an afterthought or inconvenience. Being helpful was the way I tried to counteract those feelings. I sometimes assume blame that is not mine to shoulder, and work to solve problems that are not mine to solve. While in my professional life I am good at teamwork and I know my value in the workplace, in my personal life, negotiating and compromising sometimes confound me.

Thanks to years of hard work and patient people, as well as the influence of a couple important books (including Brene Brown’s and Harriet Lerner’s books), these childhood beliefs have lessened their impact greatly. My partner understands that old belief patterns surface sometimes and has been a vital part of my re-learning. However, new situations and insights mean sometimes revisiting previous emotional ground, and the suggestion that I was going Joan of Arc definitely called for some thought. Hearing the word “martyr” used in connection to what I thought was a good faith solution to an ongoing issue was one of those triggers for revisiting previous ground.

In the process of thinking all this through, I admitted to myself that sometimes I guilt people, which intersects with being a martyr. I want to claim that I never intentionally do it, and I try to be sensitive to times that I may be doing it, but I was raised by an award-winning, unabashed travel agent for guilt trips, and my ex-husband used guilt like a scalpel. It is a pattern I can fall into, so vigilant awareness is important.

Other times, a private pity party may seep out as martyrdom. Social media, email, or texting (sometimes when I’ve been under emotional or physical stress or had one too many shots of whiskey) turn what should have been a quiet dark night of the soul into a more public discussion. In those cases, I stand by saying I was not being a martyr; I was having what should have been an emo evening, which would have disappeared when the sun rose, but instead, I invited others to my pity party. That shows poor judgement — but there are times it has lead to discussions and healing that I had not realized I needed. As long as that is a once in a while rarity, I can live with it.

Then I found Oprah.com. In an article called “How To Stop Being a Martyr”(by Martha Beck, not Oprah), I found some ideas that hit hard. I tried to argue with the subtitle: If you’re chronically overextended, underappreciated, and very, very angry, there’s a simple solution: Stop playing the martyr. I was not chronically overextended (well, not since my kids grew up), I knew I am usually appreciated, and I did not feel angry at all. Anger is an incredibly rare way for me to feel. However, as I was arguing with the article, one example stopped me cold: “Over time, Sandy learns that it’s not safe to express her feelings, and that people value her only when she does things for them.” Bingo. Much of the other discussion in the article did not quite fit, but that one line echoed. It was uncomfortably close to the “Spock logic” that surfaces under duress.

The article offered a way to filter through martry-like reactions: “When you finally find someone who doesn’t say “What about me?” but “Tell me more,” you may flounder in the unfamiliar space of truth. You’ll be tempted to filter the other person’s response through your dysfunctional lens. She doesn’t mean that. I’m a disappointment. At this point — get ready, martyrs — you can cut right through this misery by saying exactly what you’re thinking. As in, “I’m afraid you don’t mean that, and that I’m a disappointment.” Then, really listen to the answer. If it seems kind and honest, with no hidden agenda, you may feel disoriented. That’s because you’re finally stepping offstage. Keep going. Keep speaking up. What are you feeling? What do you want?” To me, admitting that I feared I was a disappointment, feared that I was too much of an inconvenience, sounded as scary as anything Stephen King has ever written.

The conversation that started this introspection was weeks ago. The other person probably does not remember the brief comment that started my thinking and researching. Because of the nature of our relationship, I do not fear the hard conversations. Choosing a polyamorous lifestyle ensures that conversations about time, attention, and priorities will be a common topic, and sometimes that is a more emotionally fraught issue than is comfortable.

Now, though, I understand that unlike Spock, I am emotionally invested in the outcome of our conversations, so if I am not aware, I could perch on the ledge of martyrdom. What I intend as accommodating, supportive, and giving sometimes comes at an emotional cost. I can choose the emotional cost by ensuring that my needs are met in some way instead of discounting them. I can own my feelings and trust that I can have healthy, helpful conversations about them. Being grateful for the relationship or situation and all the people involved, focusing on the big picture instead of the specific issue helps too. I am emotionally invested in my family, my relationships, and my life. That means I cannot become Spock, doing what is good for the many or the one while dismissing its impact on me.

God Is (Not) Trying To Get My Attention

God is apparently trying to get my attention. There is a problem with that: I don’t believe He (or anything like the common concept of God) exists.

I grew up in the church. I spent my weekends playing guitar while my enthusiastic youth group sang, and I taught Sunday school classes for both adult and children. A large portion of my social life revolved around my church family. Going to church with my mom and sisters was an expectation that I never bucked, and my kids attended with me until they were nearly grown. Church was an important and special part of my life.

However, for much of the time, I was pretending. Searching, if that sounds better. Most of my friends accepted even egregious Biblical paradoxes and historical impossibilities as somehow true. I was told more than once to pray “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) so that God would replace my questions with faith. Even though I wanted to believe that God existed and cared about each person individually, I didn’t. Einstein might have said “God doesn’t play dice with the universe,” and Jung claimed there were no coincidences, but…well,…those blithe quotes had contexts that were not nearly as breezy.

Even when I “believed,” I didn’t accept that God cared what I studied in college or whether I wore jeans to worship service. I was appalled at the idea that having cancer would be blessing from God in any way, and I was baffled at the assertion that a blizzard that trapped my youth group in another state was God’s plan for saving people the strangers we witnessed to strangers who took us in — all things my friends could positively applaud as God in action.

As I got older and studied more, learning more about mythology, other religions, the origin of the Christian Bible and my own denomination, I accepted that I did not even believe there is sentient force advocating for us, a proto-God, especially not an anthropomorphized, we are built-in-His-image sentient being. Reading about goddesses and the feminine divine did not expand the concept of “God” enough to reassure me that God’s in heaven — which, incidentally, I do not believe in, either.

I continued attending my church, however. I liked the people there, and I felt good about many of the socially-oriented ministries it sponsored. I played devil’s advocate in study groups and represented the liberal interpretations of faith in my Sunday school class without telling them that I didn’t actually believe any of it. One minister approached me about my “crisis in faith,” but overall, staying in the church was easier than admitting to myself and others that I did not believe God existed, not even in the remote “intelligent designer” sense. I was comfortable pretending that I was searching.

But the last few years, changes in the church, society, and myself made it clear that I had to be honest. When I left the church, I lost a community — people I had been close to for much of my life — because their social lives and mine did not intersect outside of a church context, and none of us made the effort to build a non-faith-based friendships. My social life and my connection with my community as a whole suffered because I quit pretending.

That leads me to the odd experience I had last week. While driving home from a solitary out of town shopping trip. I was throwing a serious pity party for myself about how few friendships I have, the type of friends who you make plans with, have traditions and regular events with. I have people for dinner, and friends who are there if I need someone, but this is the first time in my life that I have not had a tribe, for lack of a better word.

Anyway, I was deep in feeling sorry for myself while driving, and I was considering if I should go back to Sunday school, with the caveat that I don’t believe, but I basically care about the people. I was thinking about whether Sunday school would make a difference in my social connectiveness, when my phone rang.

It was my Sunday School teacher. I haven’t talked to her in nearly a year. The class is going out for dinner in two weeks, and they wanted to make sure I was invited. I immediately said I will be there, and we chatted for about a half hour.

If I had any inkling of religion left, I would see the timing as divine intervention. As I was considering whether I need to return to church for social reasons, my phone rang and it was my church. I’m still amused by the coincidence.

But there are no coincidences — that was drilled into me for years. Everything that happens is God trying to communicate with us. Decades of indoctrination and quasi-belief do not fade easily, but at this point, I can appreciate amusing irony without feeling the hand of God slipping into my head. Or so I thought.

Then yesterday I was driving home again, and I clicked on my podcast app to hear the next Freakonomics podcast in the series I was listening to. Apparently I misclicked in the dark at a stop light and choose a pagan podcast by mistake. It was short, entertaining and thoughtful, so I kept it on. As I pulled into my driveway, the hosts of the podcast closed with what they called their guiding principle: There are no coincidences.

At this point, any of my Christian friends would emphatically argue that God is trying to get a message to me. Some of my “spiritual but not-quite-Christian” friends would probably agree. My couple of pagan/New Age friends would earnestly suggest that I draw the energy I need towards me, so even if I do not want to attend church, I may need those people in my life.

But what do I believe? Years of experience, research and thought is not canceled out by an ironically timed phone call during an isolated pity party. There is no Charleton-Heston-esque whisper luring me back to the faithful flock. Deciding I believed again, or even allowing myself the easy luxury of pretending to believe again, would have some psychological pay-off. Sinking into the structure of Sunday morning church, maybe even joining a church choir — that would be easy, and I have faked it before. The story of my faith being renewed by a phone call would light up my congregation, or a new congregation if I changed churches (which, as a former United Methodist, I would have to do because of their current LBGTQ issues). I could be an inspirational anecdote!

But..I do not have the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart, and I do not believe the B-I-B-L-E is the book for me. Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt is a terrific morality tale, but impossible. And me walking into a church as if I’m returning back to my true faith…that is not happening either, despite a phone call inviting me to dinner.

Terror and Wonder: 60 Days till I’m 60

“How do I confront aging? With a wonder and a terror. Yeah, I’ll say that. Wonder and terror. “ Keanu Reeves

In sixty days, I turn sixty years old. That statement of fact can be wrapped in a variety of internal subtext: numbers don’t mean anything, I’ll only be a day older than I was the day before, sixty is the threshold of senior citizen, and a whole list of other responses and emotions. Whatever bow I wrap around it, the fact stays the same. I will be sixty in sixty days.

Point out all the examples of vibrant old women you know: Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Betty White, Rita Moreno, Jane Fonda–all worthy role models. When I was twenty, I was not walking paths similar to what they were (or walking runways, either), and their bodies and lives at fifty were radically different than mine at fifty. As inspirational as they are to me, my sixty won’t look like theirs, and my seventy or eighty won’t, either.

My images of old age come closer to home. My great-grandmother, a bitter shut-in, lived with my family from the time I was ten. She died after I had gone away to college. My grandmother spent her last few years in a nursing home, often fractious from the ravages of dementia. Woven in my history is the daily experience of living with failing bodies and minds. My twenty wasn’t like theirs, either, and my fifty was worlds away from theirs. Trusting that their experience will not be mine is logical, but believing that means fighting a creamy emotional filling that I digested decades ago.

When I was a child, Andy Griffith’s “Aunt Bea” was old. I am currently two years older than Frances Bavier was when she began that role. Later in my life, The Golden Girls were heralded as full of life “older women.” At the beginning of the series, the sexy, fun older woman, Blanche (played by Rue McClanahan), was seven years younger than I am now.

I can offer evidence that culturally, I’m not really that old. A coworker suggested that my latest attempt at learning computer programming should be a countdown clock to the arrival of the Dungeons & Dragons-based game I recently supported on Kickstarter. Would an old person do that? I’m planning another solo tent camping trip this summer somewhere that I have never gone before–the “girls” I go out think that is foolhardy and dangerous. Right now, I’m in better shape physically, emotionally, and financially than I was at age fifty. (Rereading this paragraph, my gut reaction is “Methinks I doth protest too much.”)

However..I see the crepey skin on my neck. I debate if (when) I will stop fighting nature and let my salt & pepper hair take over–and I know there is not much pepper left. The night Peter Tork died, I had a couple shots of whiskey in his honor as I listened to “Auntie Grizelda.” President Kennedy’s death and Watergate are embedded with my worldview, and both the invention of birth control pills and the bafflement as my college friends were among the first AIDS victims are bound with my sexual history. I cannot ignore that the Baby Boom is going out with a whimper, and I am part of the last cohort.

So how am I confronting this? Just like Kenau Reeves said, with Terror and Wonder. Turning sixty is not bad. It is not good. It just is. Finding out what my sixty will be–since I can’t be Rita Moreno and I don’t have to be my bitter great-grandmother, will only have as much terror and wonder as I accept.

I process events and emotions through writing. For the next sixty days, I’m going to use a variety of quotes, memes, poems, songs—who knows what all I will find–to consider and process what lies ahead. I’m tossing these words out on the wind, hoping that maybe, just maybe, in hopes I’m not the only one looking head with terror and wonder.

Translating “I don’t want to hurt you”

A short list of phrases people don’t want to hear: “We need to talk;” “You have the right to remain silent,” “There’s nothing we can do,” “I hate to be the one to tell you;” and “I don’t want to hurt you.” In each case, the phrase itself is innocuous. The fear of what follows it is the killer.

Several times recently, I’ve been on the receiving end of “I don’t want to hurt you.” At least once I’ve said it, and I’ve thought it other times in the midst of conversations. Each time, the nuance was different. Each time, understanding what was behind the formulaic “I don’t want to hurt you,” could have–or did–make a difference in how the conversation resolved.

Most of us don’t want to cause our loved ones pain. The caveat “I don’t want to hurt you” signals that they have already considered what they are doing or about to say, and decided that we will be hurt. They may be right. They might not be. At any rate, they hope to soften the perceived blow by saying they don’t want to hurt us. Regardless what comes next, we are braced for something bad. Depending on our personalities, we get in a mentally in a defensive position, pulling back emotionally to distance ourselves from the potential hurt and the person causing it, or perhaps we brace ourselves to argue back, maybe hoping to change the hurtful information or action.

Does the person saying it believe that I’m not strong enough to deal with whatever ill wind is being heralded? Is that phrase a signal that I’m too sensitive,  “I don’t want to hurt you, but…” can imply that there is a doubt about my emotional or spiritual strength. It’s a power phrase: someone in a weaker or less powerful position wouldn’t use it. The person who uses it is the person with the power, which can come with the implication that there is a concern that the person hearing it is too weak to deal. That subtext is not always there, but the person saying it is always the one who has the power–at least at that moment if not always.

Perhaps the subtext is that I am the source of the issue that is about to be revealed, whether that’s expressly pointed out or not. The older I get, the more aware of my foibles, downfalls, and mistakes I’ve become. I’ve recognized unnoticed strengths, too, and earned my scars–but I now see how even in situations where I wasn’t causing the issue, my choices compounded it. I’m not as innocent or as victimized as I’d like to believe or about my ability to recognize and accept my fallibility. “I don’t want to hurt you” can preface a statement explicitly or implicitly pointing out my role in creating a problem–and that’s often what I hear, even when it’s not intended.

Or it could mean that the person saying it questions whether the relationship is strong enough to have uncomfortable, hard conversations. “I don’t want to hurt you” can precede information or actions that end a relationship, or that at least throw the previous definition of it up for discussion. Generally, people don’t begin a relationship by saying “I don’t want to hurt you,” but how many breakups include those words? Of course that could be the opening to a productive, open, honest conversation full of a range of emotions–that’s best case, and I would burn candles and wave sage around if I could ensure that was what happened every time I was in a conversation with those words. But using that phrase instead of simply introducing the topic carries with it the idea that maybe–perhaps–the relationship isn’t strong enough in some way to overcome what comes after that phrase. “I don’t want to hurt you” is a sideways check point about the commitment both people–or all the people–have to the relationship or situation involved. What comes after that phrase may be less important that the fact that there’s doubt or fear about how the information will be dealt with.

There’s an assumed “but” after the phrase. “I don’t want to hurt you, but..” However, I’ve used it as a statement of stubbornness. I won’t do something–whether it needs done or not, whether it hurts me or not–because I don’t want to hurt you. When it’s used that way, the person saying it has already decided a course of action or silence, has determined to be a martyr in the name of not hurting someone else. It sounds noble, and it can feel noble, but it’s disempowering to the other party and kills a partnership or relationship in record time.

Of course, all those situations only occur if the phrase is spoken. Perhaps the worst, the hardest to understand or recover from, is the unspoken “I don’t want to hurt you.” Best case, that leads to conversations that begin “I didn’t want to hurt you,” and those come with their own baggage because of the timing, but the previous reasons the information wasn’t disclosed in a more timely manner still apply.

The introductory crutch of “I don’t want to hurt you” is a formula we know, a trope we fall into. I’m sure I’ll use it again, and I’m sure I’ll hear it again. Beware, though: if a conversation ends with that phrase, the relationship may be on life support. Being hurt is part of being alive and being connected with others. Continuing the conversation, more than once if needed, to understand the beliefs behind “I don’t want to hurt you” or “I didn’t want to hurt you” might lead to more understanding, honest, and open communication. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Lessons I Should Have Learned Earlier: The Nice Girl

You probably know me. I’m a nice person. I’m the responsible one who does what needs done, who generally puts others’ needs first, who usually defers my emotional responses until a convenient time. I was raised believing love is patient, love is kind, love doesn’t keep score, and all you need is love.

That made me an easy target. I was drawn to the men who needed me — often angsty intellectuals who I thought were deep. I found it easy to pick up the lost socks of their daily lives because they obviously were focused on less superficial things. I could handle the bills, do the cleaning, and in fact, earn almost all the income — love didn’t keep score, and being patient and kind was a trademark of love. Of course a relationship took work. I accepted that I was the one doing all the work — emotional and physical — without question.

I defined myself by how I could serve. My upbringing and my church encouraged that: Servant Leadership was a buzzword that I heard in weekly church services, and the professional culture surrounding my day gig, education, reinforced it even more. “Whatever It Takes” was the mantra for my life. It took years for me to see that I was a helpfulness-junkie and even longer to begin to change it. I was the accommodating committee member who took on the extra responsibility, the friend who almost always said of course I have time for whatever you need.

When I finally left my two-decade marriage, I was shocked that all my friends and family were happy. Relieved. They were surprised that I finally realized I could walk away. They knew I was the nice girl.

The first lesson that I should have learned earlier was this: Nice girls — and nice boys, too — need to keep score, to yell “No” and “I’m done.” We need to know that any relationship we lose because we refuse to do the lion’s share of work, emotional or physical, is a relationship we’re better off losing. I’ve always been able to champion causes or people I cared about, but I rarely advocated for myself. I had a hard time telling anyone what I needed or wanted because I didn’t know. It was (and still is, usually) nearly unthinkable to inconvenience anyone else, even when I have missed sleep or emptied my pocket fulfilling their needs.

Lennon and McCartney were wrong. Love isn’t all you need, regardless how sincerely they sing it. It may be wrong to keep score of every action every day, but a regular check in to make sure that no one is freeloading in the relationship is essential, especially if one person is prone to enabling.

Today I was talking to an acquaintance, a woman slightly older than myself who had spent a great deal of time and energy arranging an event for a group I’m part of. There had been some complications with the event, and she tenaciously fought to make the event turn out well. It was wonderful, and as I thanked her, she said, “Well, I’m a nice girl, and I didn’t want to let anyone down. That was my fear, you know.”

I know. And in my friend’s situation, being tenaciously nice worked to my group’s advantage. If I had been in her place, I would have done exactly what she did. But that was for a weekend, not for a lifetime. Lesson one that I finally learned — and sometimes have to relearn — is that it is fine, even better than fine, to be not-nice. Now, if people sing “All you need is love” as they expect me to put their dirty socks in the hamper, I do my best to turn my inner channel from The Beatles to Nancy Sinatra. If my niceness is being taken advantage of, “These Boots are Made for Walking” is my new theme song.

Lasts, Endings, and Beginning Again

Right now, I should be entering grades, writing (very late) lesson plans, and designing the final exams that I will be giving the week after next–in order to put together study guides, I need to know what’s on the exam, and with graduation next weekend, I’m not going to even attempt to tell myself that I’ll put together the tests next weekend. I know better.

This coming week is graduation prep for Beth and winding up the year for me. My to-do list is somewhat long, but I’m not feeling pressured; it’ll all get done, even with me taking a moment to write. I want to reflect on all the ending, all the changes–but at this point, the combo of things that need done and emotional….fatigue?….blunt my reactions. I want out of the classroom, and I don’t believe that I’ve been good in it for two years. I can’t point with pride to much I’ve done in the classroom–academically or as it relates to specific kids since MI ended. Parts of this year have been as dead and anxious for me as the worst of the old school years. Would it have been different if I had known I wouldn’t be replaced until next year? I don’t know. My attitude about that could certainly have colored the year. But it’s not that much different than last year, and I can’t name any teacher I’ve talked with that would even call the year mediocre. I have to remind myself that I had good years–excellent years–and try to hold to them as my memories of teaching.

And Beth is graduating. For 18 years, my mornings have included her getting in the car with me to go whereever she had to be before my day started. Her first day of kindergarten is still so heart-stopping clear to me. We got in the car, her with her backpack and smile–a bit scared, but she’d met her teacher before and been in the school for speech therapy many times. I took her to First Baptist, where she’d get breakfast and walk over to school with her daycare teacher and a few other latchkey kids. She went in with no issues, hugged me and we talked a bit, then I left. When I got to the car, I cried. Sobbed. While watching my watch, because I had exactly 3 minutes that I could fall apart, then I had to swing past the house to get Megan (first year of high school) and Chris, who was starting his senior year. 3 minutes to cry. There’s a poem in there somewhere. By the time I’d traveled the few blocks to get them, my eyes were clear and if they could tell I’d been crying, they didn’t mention it.

And now, I’m at another major juncture, and I don’t seem to have any tears. Very little joy, either. Just another to do list, just another time when I know I’ve fallen short, but have to cross my fingers, light some candles, and have faith that it’s all going to work.

Adventures in…Adventuring

I’d like to say to all my fans out there, thanks for the support. And to all my doubters, thank you very much because you guys have also pushed me.

Usain Bolt
This picture is a reminder of times I’ve accomplished more than I would have thought possible because I’ve dug in and gotten stubborn when people who shall remain nameless have scoffed at my ability or actively discouraged me from doing something.
Case in point: whitewater rafting. I love rafting, and have gone several times. I was in my 40s, well past my physical prime (which was a two month period in my late teens, I think) when I saw a picture of people whitewater rafting and thought, “I should try that.” After I announced that I was planning a trip, I became a punchline for a few people. Their expectation seemed to be that I would come to my senses just before time to board the raft, realizing that rafting was not the sort of thing I would do.
I loved it. We primitive camped in the woods at Ohiopyle State Park, rafted, and had a great time, one of the highlights of my life. I’ve gone again a couple times, and I even took students on a small trip to whitewater raft in Kentucky.
That trip had its nay-sayers, too. Several students were ambitious organizers, helping myself and the other teacher in charge so this could happen, and my principal gave us his wholehearted support (and the money for the bus, which made the trip possible). But there were others who had myriad reasons the trip was a bad idea. The whisper campaign and teachers who had earnest conversations about things I may not have considered did take a toll and may have contributed to several students backing out.
It would have been easy to give up as the roadblocks grew against us going, just as it would have been easy (and cheaper) to stay home when I first decided to go rafting. Not doing it would have been easy to explain, with plenty of logical reasons to discard the idea. But the haters who denigrated the idea, and the frienemies who helpfully pointed out the potential pitfalls and lurking liabilities of going–they were a motivation to put on my best Alfred E. Neuman smile and insist everything was going as planned, better than, in fact.
Sometimes, negative people and unsupportive friends do stifle my mojo. No doubt, I’m as prone to succumbing to disparaging words–both from internal and external sources–as anyone. As a teacher and parent, I work to be an encouraging voice, challenging while supporting. I need those people too, the ones whose whipered “I know you can do it” resonates when I’m about to give up. But sometimes–and the bigger the challenge, the more I respond to this dynamic–proving someone wrong about my ability to meet a challenge is the underlying push that has made the difference. And for that, I am grateful.

Family Ties (from 2014)

You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. ~Desmond Tutu

In a few minutes, I’m going to head home from Parent-Teacher conferences to have chili made by my daughter Megan, who is home from Columbus for a couple days. We’ll sit at the table eating and chatting, and if Bethany has her way, we will play a card game called “Gloom” that we’ve planned to play but never made time to. It will be one of those Vonnegut “If this isn’t good, what Is?” moments.

My kids are high on the list of things I’m thankful for–and I’m not saying that because it’s a required part of the “Mother Job Description.” What I’m grateful for isn’t that I managed to follow the step-by-step directions to reproduce. Truth: Growing up, I’d never seen myself as the mother type. Even in my mid-20s, I was willing to indefinitely delay the becoming a mommy stage of adulthood. At best, I was an adequate mother who managed to mitigate at least some of my worst mothering mistakes by having terrifically talented, complex, interesting kids…which also compounded most of the challenges of parenting.

Anyway, we’re going to gather at a table and have chili that Megan made, and enjoy a few moments of family time–something that’s incredibly rare since my oldest two have scattered. Chris is nowhere near, but there are many times that I go on the Meatloaf philosophy: Two out of Three ain’t Bad.

The absolute best part of having my kids around–or even having them call or email, or send carrier pigeons or smoke signals–is this: I think all three of my kids are fun to talk to. They’re interesting, and they all know things I don’t know. For all the mistakes and “interesting choices” we made as the kids were growing up, the kids are all right. I can say without hesitation that I would choose each of them to be a friend of mine if I were to meet them now. To me, that matters.

So in a few minutes, I’ll head home from conferences to find a messy kitchen and noise in my usually silent house–and it will be good.

My Open Letter Resigning from The United Methodist Church (2014)

On a Palm Sunday in the early 1970s, I was confirmed as a member of The United Methodist Church. I was excited to officially join my church, and I looked forward to being active in the large, dynamic youth group which became the cornerstone of my social life throughout my junior high and high school years. At the time, the extent of my church-related knowledge was this: Rev. Yocom would usually answer questions by telling a story about his life, and I looked pretty cute in my mini-skirt and mod white shirt with a band collar and lacy bell-cuffs. A product of the times, I was schooled in a combination of traditional Wesleyan theology (scripture, tradition, reason, experience) and popular theologies, probably summed up via a combination of Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and—I’ll admit it—the Beatles. Those influences along with a Jesus people-esque emphasis touting “All you need is Love” and “God is Love” were the basis of my youthful spiritual foundation.

Now I’m embarrassed to admit I belong to the United Methodist Church. I’m appalled that when non-Methodists think of the church, it is most likely based on our draconian approach to dealing with issues relating to homosexuals and those called to minister to them, including Rev. Thomas Ogletree of New York and Rev. Frank Schaefer of Pennsylvania. I’m puzzled that when there have been opportunities for the church to at least acknowledge that wisdom is needed to help the church determine its role in ministering with and to gays, the church has shut the doors of communication, choosing instead to reaffirm its current position; the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Florida, made headlines because of its refusal to consider an “agree to disagree” amendment on the topic when it was presented by Rev. Adam Hamilton of Leawood, Kansas, and Rev. Mike Slaughter of Tipp City, Ohio.

The church—any church, not specifically the United Methodists—has the duty and right to interpret scripture and other leadings however its leaders and people feel is correct. I don’t question that. At an organizational level, every church is a human-created and -operated entity that prays it is following the dictates of its understanding of what God requires of his followers. If the best minds and hearts of the Methodist church agree that its treatment of homosexuals and those who minister to them is God-driven, then I won’t question that its people are acting in all sincerity.

But I can’t continue being part of an organization that uses the Wesleyan tradition to exclude and marginalize others. The Methodist tagline—“Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors”—is still emblazoned on the UMC website; it needs an added note: **unless openly gay. Inviting people based on the idea that we have open minds and open hearts, then slamming the door unless they stay in the closet—that feels like the type of mindset which compelled Jesus to overturn tables at the temple and play word games with Pharisees.

 In fact, the Methodist slogan seems tailor-made to welcoming gays, inviting them to leave their closet behind to find community and fellowship with a local congregation. However, many Methodists I know champion the “love the sinner, hate the sin” mentality, a phrase which embeds judgment in a micro-aggressive claim of love. Christian theology via St. Paul claims “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” but my job is to love people and support them as they find their path. For me, labeling people as “sinners” is wrong. Jesus was harsh about people who were judgmental and hypocritical. I’m not in any position to throw the first stone—especially because I accept that sexual preference, like eye color and handedness, are inborn; critiquing how God chooses to create people is not my job either.

There are groups within the church which are working for equality and recognition. I applaud their efforts and believe they will ultimately make a difference. I’m not called to actively fight on this issue; I’ve struggled with this since 2005, when at South Hill United Methodist Church in Virginia, Rev. Edward Johnson refused to let a gay attendee become a member of the church. The church’s position on the issue hasn’t changed; I have. As an enthusiastic 12-year-old, I never considered asking questions about the church’s stance on homosexuality. At this point in my life, I cannot be officially listed as a member of an organization that judges my gay friends and family as unworthy of being treated like a child of God. Those who are fighting for change have my support—and I believe that the way I need to support them is to show that this issue matters enough to me that it’s worth leaving the Methodist church.

I’m proud that my own congregation is more inclusive, and at this point I intend to continue attending there as a non-member, but I’ve also attended a Quaker meeting that comes much closer to fitting my general theological understanding at this point in my life. Eventually that may become my “home church,” but my current Sunday school class offers opportunities for growth and fellowship, and I don’t want to leave that.

One of my favorite songs when I played guitar for my church youth group eons ago was “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” That song is in now in the Methodist hymnal, and instead of long-haired teens with guitars leading it, adult organists perform elaborate introductions to signal the congregation’s singing. The last time I sang that song, surrounded by the beautiful stained-glass windows in my impressive sanctuary, I choked up. Who will know we are Christians by our love? Not our gay brothers and sisters, or those ministering to them. After all my words and justifications, that’s the simple explanation why I’m resigning my membership to the United Methodist Church.

Good Bye, Yellow Brick Road: My Ode to the School of Multiple Intelligences

Note: I wrote this in 2013, and I was only an English teacher at Lima Senior for a couple of years after I wrote this. I teared up while re-reading it, and I stand by my belief that MI did incredible things and being part of it was the highlight of my career as a teacher.  

I’m only going to be a teacher for the School of Multiple Intelligences for a few more hours. When I walk in school, after dawn comes and I’m more awake, I will be an MI teacher–but after my room is packed, my check out sheet is signed, and my keys are turned in, I’m simply a Lima Senior High teacher again.

Being an LSH teacher is a perfectly good thing, of course; I spent the first 18 years of my career doing being one, and I did a boatload of wonderful  things as an LSH teacher–and I will again, no doubt.  Here’s the thing, though: I did those in isolation, one teacher, a bunch of kids. I wrote a piece when we closed Lima Senior about the ending of that era, when we were closing the actual building and opening not only the new building, but also opening three small schools within the building; what strikes me now, after 9 years as an MI teacher, is  how little mention of my colleagues or the larger school community were in that piece. It was the students and me, and any connection with my neighbors down the hall or the principals in the office was unusual.

At the time, of course, I didn’t see it that way. I assumed that my relationships with my department and my fellow teachers was perfectly normal. Then came MI.

Before the school opened, we had spent hours—days–no, weeks–in meetings about what “our school” should be like. Almost everything was on the table: schedule, electives, mission statement, even what our hall passes should be! Even the decisions that were studied by small groups eventually were decided by consensus, not vote, by the whole staff. We eventually learned which teachers orally processed ideas and options, not really committed to the stream of ideas they were spewing forth; they had to think out loud. We learned which teachers wouldn’t say a word through the discussion, but once they did, they were sure of their path. There were a few times, especially at the beginning, when decisions that we thought were made turned on a dime when one quiet, thoughtful Math teacher finally spoke up, saying she couldn’t support whatever that decision was…and the discussion began again. Ultimately, that check and balance made us stronger and more committed to our course of action. We knew what we intended, and even when we fell short (which happened frequently), we still had the vision in front of us–and our leaders and each other, trying to get it just a bit more “right” the next time.

Even after we opened, the discussions and the tweaking continued–and the self-assessment, wrapped up in those dreaded Barnhardt questions. I always threatened to miss the meetings where we had to argue through what rating we should receive on every criteria (citing evidence, of course), but the only time I missed on was when I was out of town on school business. I still think we should have had a voice in adapting Barnhardt, but here’s an important point: the process of discussing those ideas was what mattered; not the rating we gave ourselves. That process is missing now, and it’s impossible for the same degree of voice and interaction to occur in a staff of nearly 100 (MI had around 30 staff members). That’s a big part of what happened behind the curtain, where the students and the public didn’t see–and it’s a large part of what we are losing. Ownership. Autonomy. Partnership with people who have bought into the vision.

As my Facebook page and my phone contacts attest, it wasn’t just the teachers who mattered in MI. In the old LSH, my students were my most important relationship. In the new paradigm, the students were the whole reason we did it, and our goal was to build relationships with them that pushed and inspired them to do more than they imagined they could. And I am still finding daily examples in my Facebook feed of how well that worked. Students who would have fallen through the cracks in the old school have recently graduated from college–something I couldn’t have imagined for several of them based on where they academically when they entered MI. With around 400 students and about 30 staff members, no one was merely a face in the crowd. I could give example after example showing the relationship between teachers and students, and how that carried over into a higher commitment to doing their best on both sides; I don’t even know how to cherry pick an example. The kids matter, and I can find examples of every staff member going well above and beyond to prove it.

We started with a young, inexperienced teacher as our leader, and until Jeff, I didn’t know what it meant to be driven by a vision and committed to working it through. To this day, he is one of the very, very few people I have ever gotten into an actual “shouting” argument with–and there have been times since he left to play on a bigger field that I wish Jeff would come back to continue pushing us, even though I can imagine the arguments we would need to have! Until then, I’d never dreamed what it meant to have the support and respect of the principal, either. And……I’d certainly never imagined that I’d tackle a principal at a Christmas party to try to keep him from winning at Dance, Dance Revolution–but yep, that happened too (with a little help from another teacher–thanks, Melinda!) We were a community, with all the ups and downs, wounds and scars and blessings that implies.

With Jeff as our leader, we had the “rocks” of our foundation, which is the genesis of the oft-used phrase “MI Rocks!” When he left, we asked for and got the right to not just be at the table for the choosing of our new leader, but to run the whole process–and we eventually choose Jeff’s right hand, Sue. As different as her style was, her commitment to MI was every bit as strong. The “Rocks” still existed, but we had outgrown our vision statement; it was dated and generic for what we needed at that point. So…..after several meetings with no progress on a new vision statement, we decided on 10 Belief Statements. They are still the most lofty set of goals I’ve seen for running a school. (I will add them as a separate post when I get to school. I don’t happen to have them posted in my dining room)

I have been thinking about this writing for a week now, and have taken notes–which I have completely ignored as I’ve written in the dusky hours before dawn. I had some good ideas, and who knows, maybe some MI memories will be posted this summer. Or maybe the time will have passed. I’m busy getting ready to teach this summer at Rhodes, and to begin next school year in a different classroom with a different principal and a whole new set of conventions and expectations. Maybe I don’t have the emotional energy left to write more about it in the near future. My alarm clock has rung, and my day needs to start, so I can’t begin the litany of names and memories now.

Here’s my clearest image of MI, what I’ve been remembering this week: The first day in the new building, the first day MI existed. All the MI teachers wore their new,crisp, shining white MI shirts–Bill Blass’ best emblazoned with the MI logo. Students walking in were completely enthralled. Visually it was impressive–but there was something else: it was clear we were working as a unit, we were proud and excited–we were MI. And the kids were too. That’s what they walked in to discover that first day. We did it for them and with them—and especially those first few years, they recognized the difference.

MI existed because of the school reform movement. Bill Gates (via KnowledgeWorks) threw passels of money at us, making all the meetings and training and details possible. We’re closing not because of money, but because the enrollment in our district has gone down enough that keeping three small schools open is fiscally irresponsible. I know that, and I have to trust that everyone involved is going to do their best to make the “new, improved” Lima Senior better than ever.

I’ve learned more about what that means in the last few years, though. I’ve learned that true school reform doesn’t come from the outside-in or the top-down. It comes from the people in the trenches buying into the vision, then working their damnedest to make every day a bit closer to the vision than the previous day was. Will we do that? I don’t know. It’s too soon to tell. What I do know is this: For a brief, shining moment, there was MI.