Philosophy

Unconditional Gratitude

I have mixed feelings about gratitude lists.

Yes, I know that they can help me stay positive, and help me to keep my focus on what I do have, on the good things in my life.

However, most “gratitude” is comparative.  We look around and are grateful that we have it better than the next person.

I might have a low income, but at least I’m not homeless like the man under the overpass.

I might have a child with autism, but at least she doesn’t have health problems like my friend’s child.

I might have experienced trauma, but at least I don’t have debilitating PTSD like the guy down the street.

Being grateful that our suffering is not as bad as someone else’s, does not seem like true gratitude, to me.  At the very least, it is negative and pitying.

Another issue I have with gratitude lists, is that they cherry-pick which of our experiences we approve of, and which ones we banish from our minds.

For example, I could write this gratitude list:

  1.  I have a loving family and a very intelligent daughter.
  2. I finally have a career that I not only enjoy, but LOVE!
  3. My parents live close and are very involved in Iliana’s life.
  4. Iliana goes to a wonderful school, in an excellent program.
  5. I have many close friends down here, including two good friends from Michigan

However, that is not the entire story.  Simply focusing on the positives, denies the other, less pleasant aspects of my life, which are still just as real and just as relevant:

  1.  I am a sexual assault survivor.
  2. I have dealt with significant emotional challenges, including self-harm and a suicide attempt.
  3. My daughter has a disability  that impacts every aspect of her life.
  4. We are still getting back on our feet financially, after the events of last year, and are using public assistance to help us do that.
  5. I have a strong tendency toward co-dependent relationships and tend to run away from people before we can get too close.

One list grabs your attention more, but they both are equally true and relevant in my life!  And before you fall into the trap of comparative gratitude and start feeling sorry for me, know this:  I am grateful for the items on both lists!

You can’t choose which experiences to be grateful for, and which experiences to reject.  Because they all happened.  And you have the opportunity to grow from all of them, if you choose to accept it.

Here is an example.

Some time ago, I was in therapy, processing a traumatic event from adolescence.  The details don’t matter.  What matters is that this was a story I had only told to two other people, and my therapist and I were both emotionally spent by the time I was done.  I said, “I’ve thought about this every day for the past 25 years, and there has to be something good that has come from it.”  My therapist, remaining professional but definitely affected, said very quietly, “Yes, there has to be something.”

At my next session, we were discussing self-esteem, and she asked me what I liked about myself.  I said that a lot of my strengths had come from that traumatic time in my life.  Through tears, I then passionately listed everything I love about myself, and how it had come from that painful time.  I was finding true gratitude.

While comparative gratitude leads us to separate others from ourselves and use pity to distance ourselves from suffering, true gratitude can help us feel more connected to those around us and make us more able to help them through their journies.  While selective gratitude leads us to deny a significant aspect of our situation, true gratitude helps us to remain hopeful and stay strong through the most difficult of times.

The past year was one of the most difficult experiences of my life, and it was through that trial that I learned the power of true gratitude.

While I was in the thick of the situation, it was not helpful for me to compare my situation to those that other people faced.  My brain was stuck in survival mode, and thinking about other people’s suffering only led me to feel more hopeless.  I tried to cherry pick things to be grateful for, but doing so just ignored the elephant in the room.  I tried to even find hope that my situation would eventually be over, but I was unable to do so.

It was at one of our 6 am conversations, when I told my yoga teacher about my hopelessness.  Her response was, “Don’t look for the light at the end of the tunnel.  Look for the lessons that you are supposed to learn.”

Shifting this mindset, helped me to shift into a mindset of true gratitude.  I did learn lessons–valuable, powerful lessons.  While it is true that I could have learned the lessons differently, the reality is that I did not.  I learned them through my journey, and at this point I would not change a thing about it.

So today, in honor of Thanksgiving in the US, I am sharing with you, my gratitude list.  These are the lessons I learned through my journey over the past year:

1.   We are all in this together.

From my yoga teacher, who kept getting up early enough to go to class at 6 am, to the friend who got me involved with union that could actually help me…to the union rep who did what she could, to the co-workers who heard about my situation and offered their support…to the administators and co-workers from my former job back in Michigan, who helped me make the changes in this next leg of my journey…to all of my new bosses and co-workers, who have been nothing but supportive.  We don’t live in a vacuum, and we are all here to support each other.  When I was in the thick of my situation, I once commented that I had never felt more connected.

2.  There is a danger in not understanding your gifts.

There was one person involved in my situation, who very much had a mentor role in my life.  I definitely had a “friend crush” on her, and with good reason!  She could light up a room, just by entering it, and she always listened, then said just the right thing to make everything better.  I felt so relieved when I saw her as my situation was worsening, because I knew she had been an ally in the past and could help me.

However, this person reacted out of fear.  She did all she could to “protect” herself, often at my expense.  Any relationship we had was destroyed, and her actions led to my situation continuing and spiralling out of hand.

The tragedy is that this person has a gift.  Her passion, and her ability to brighten a room and put people at ease, could help her in any job, in any situation.  However, she shrunk away and fell into survival mode, because she did not realize how powerful these gifts are.  Instead of shining her light to the world, she is fighting to keep herself employed in a job that likely does not even allow her to fully express her gifts.

3.  The way others treat us is often a reflection of the way we treat ourselves.

My situation is not my “fault.”  It is not my fault that I was hurt.

However, I never believed that I was capable, mature, or socially aware.  As a result, I started a pattern of allowing people to throw me under the bus, long before I ended up in the situation that I was in last year.  I did not self-advocate, because I did not believe I was worthy of being heard.  I did not walk away from my situation, because I did not believe that I could make it.

It wasn’t my fault.  But the situation would have played out very differently if I had believed in and valued myself.

4.  I have a voice.

Prior to my situation, I always believed that everyone else’s truth was more valid than my own. If someone disagreed with me, I would concede, because I assumed they were automatically “right.”  This led to a lot of the issues in #3.

5.  The path is easier when you clarify what you want.

Before the last school year started, we talked about the Law of Attraction in my 6 am yoga class.  I dove straight in, meditating on my “goal” everyday.  I wrote out a manifesto, proclaiming that I would be successful professionally, that my classroom would be a model classroom, and I would be teacher of the year.  I set out to make this a reality: I bought a number of new items for my classroom, got a more professional haircut and color, and bought a new wardrobe.  I took my job much more seriously, going into the new school year, and I was ready to make it happen!

It didn’t happen.

And that is okay, because the scenario I thought I wanted, really was not what I wanted.  I assumed that because I have a Master’s degree, I should want to be a high-powered professional.  The reality is that I do not.  What I want is to eat dinner with my family every night.  I want to spend a lot of time with my daughter, while she is still at an age where she wants to spend time with me.  I want a slower lifestyle, where I have time to tend to my home and create a calm, love-filled space. I want to have the energy to cook.  I want a flexible job, where my unique skill set and personality are an asset and are valued.  I want a job where I am free from the “rat race.”

I did not think I was “allowed” to desire all of that.  And now all of that is what I have.

6.  You learn more from those who speak up, than from those who are silent.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  And sure enough, it did hurt when people I had thought were friends, simply averted their eyes and ignored what was going on.  And yet, at the same time, I understood.  They were afraid of making waves, afraid of engaging in a losing battle.  They were simply trying to keep their heads down and do their jobs.  It hurt, but I can’t say that I would not have done the same in their situation.

What I will remember more, are the friends who were not silent.  The friends who did all they could to help me stay hopeful throughout the nightmare.  The friends who spoke up, who advocated for me.  These friends are amazing human beings, and we should all aspire to be more like them.

7.  It is okay to feel however you feel.

Being able to sit with difficult emotions was one of the major lessons I learned last year.  Going through trauma is akin to going through the stages of grief.  During and after the situation, I would become angry, depressed, determined, exhausted, anxious and so on.  I learned to simply allow the waves of emotion to pass, letting go of them when the time was right.  If I needed to process it with someone, I would, and I would also allow time for me to process the emotions alone.

We are so quick to label, pathologize, and numb emotions.  Feeling upset–even fluctuating between emotions–is a completely “normal” response to trauma.  It is not a mental illness.  It is not anxiety, depression, or PTSD.  In fact, I am pretty sure that by allowing my emotions and processing them, I helped keep myself from developing more serious mental health issues.

8.  There is no such thing as “security.”

This lesson has repeated itself many times in my life.  I thought I had let go of the notion of “security” when I got rid of my house and traveled to Houston with a Volvo station wagon filled with possessions.  I thought moving onto a boat would lead to freedom.

And yet, there I was, spending 5 years in a job that I didn’t love, plagued by the same fears and caught up in the same drama.  Why did I do this?  Because the job seemed secure.  I thought we needed the income.  I feared the consequences of leaving under bad circumstances.  I was afraid of becoming unemployable.

And yet, after losing the income, we still made it.  I found references, and I created a new, wonderful reality that is better than anything I could have hoped for.  If there is “security,” it is in our own ability to survive and to make the best out of any situation.

9.  Everyone learns lessons the “hard” way, so there is no room for pity or judgement.

I have a confession to make.  I had reservations about writing this post.  Not because I think that my situation was “worse” than anyone else’s.  Not because I am ashamed of my experiences.  But because I was afraid that readers would respond with pity.

The problem with pity is that it separates us.  It is a way of distancing those who have faced challenges, because we are afraid to be too close to suffering (or past suffering).

There is no reason to feel sorry for anyone.  We’re all doing the best job that we can, playing the hand that we are dealt.  And when we pity a friend who is going through a hard time, we enable them to pity themselves.  And nothing is more paralyzing than self-pity.

When we refuse to react with pity, we trust in our friends’ abilities to make it through difficult situations.  We acknowledge that suffering is a part of the human condition, and that difficult stuff happens to all of us, at some point or another.  We fearlessly hold their hand and accompany them across the emotional minefield, and all the while, we refuse to let them sit down and wallow, because we trust in their ability to make it through.

Thank you, Cresting the Hill, for allowing me to crash your link party!  If you enjoyed this post, please take a look at some of the other links on that site!

Advertisements
Philosophy

Holding Space

Two years ago, a co-worker, friend, and mentee of mine was suddenly arrested on horrible charges.  Although I found out later that they were dropped, the fact remains that, this event meant that I would never have the chance to see or speak to her again.

Yoga has always been my refuge, and I attended a yoga nidra class that night.  I let go throughout the class, and visualized the scenario that the teacher led us through.  But at the end, during savasana, I went my own way.

I pictured my happiest place, in the woods, on a hammock. I placed a picture of a sailboat, that my friend had painted for me, next to my hammock.  And a couple of items that reminded me of my two favorite yoga teachers, for comfort.

Then I held hands with my friend, and gave her the blessing, “I’m sorry.  Please forgive me.  Thank you.  I love you.” And I let her go.

Later on, I told a friend about this.  She listened, and allowed me to throw my arms around her, even though I was sitting on the floor and she was standing.  We embraced for a long time, until she whispered, “God’s peace,” and let go.  I thought she would walk away, but she sat next to me on the floor and held my hands as long as I needed.  It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.  She offered no advice.  She did not try to “fix” it.  She simply held space for me.

In that moment, I learned to sit with my emotions, and stop fighting them.  Sometimes things happen in life, that just stink.  And that is okay.  We cry, and we live through them.  They do not need fixing.

Another time, a friend confided in me that she had cancer.  She had been in remission for a long time, and was doing well.  I don’t even remember how I reacted.  But I know I held space for her to express her fears, without invalidating them.

And she thanked me for not being scared away, which floored me.

Cancer is horrible and scary.  I lost my grandpa to the exact disease this friend has.  And I have known and loved numerous other friends, who have lived with cancer.  Some are still with us, and some are not.

But abandoning this friend, was unthinkable.

To love is, ultimately, to lose.  At some time, one of us will say “good-bye.”  That is part of the human condition. I am genetically predisposed to heart issues, which I am cognizant of.  And I am a sailor, which means I frequently face nature head-on.  It is anybody’s game.

This past year, I was physically and sexually assaulted, repeatedly.  For awhile, I needed to tell everyone I encountered about it.  I needed my voice to be heard.

The best response was, and still is, “I’m sorry that happened to you.”  I am coping.  I do not have PTSD.  But I still have some weird emotional responses to specific situations, which I just need to be told are “normal.”  My body has scars from my experience, and will likely always have scars.

My career is taking a new path, a path that I love.  But I doubt myself a lot on this path, and sometimes the ghosts of the past rear their heads.  Sometimes I just need someone to hold space for me, while I process.

If a friend tells you about a horrible experience they have had, please consider not trying to “fix” it.  Just be there.  Trust in your friend’s ability to get through it and process their own emotions.  Hold space for them and allow them to talk.  Also allow for silence. It is okay to sit and hold hands.

That might be the exact thing your friend needs.

About Us, Philosophy

Being Happily “Overqualified”

Got a call from an old friend, we used to be real close
Said he couldn’t go on the American way
Closed the shop, sold the house, bought a ticket to the West Coast
Now he gives them a stand-up routine in L.A

Billy Joel

The year before I got married, I bought a house.  It was a 12 X 60 trailer, on an RV lot.  I substitute taught and went to college full time, pursuing my teaching degree.  Rob repaired cameras.  Our budget was tight, and my schedule seemed full.  However, overall, that was a very happy time in our lives.

We lived there for 3 years, until it was time to “upgrade.” I had completed my Bachelor’s and was teaching full-time and working on my Master’s.  I loved my job at that time, and I loved having more time and money, as we lived in the trailer.

I did not want to move.  But everyone told us that we needed more space if we wanted to “have kids.”

Iliana was born in a beautiful, grey chalet in a neighborhood in the woods.  The house was 1100 square feet. I loved my teaching job, until I didn’t.

The teaching profession had been undergoing a number of changes since my first year.  Teacher unions were significantly weakened in Michigan, tenure became meaningless, and schools were constantly threatened with serious sanctions if test scores were not high enough.

Altogether, this led to a perfect storm of negativity and destruction. When I had been hired, the staff members at my school were tight-knit, and the emphasis was on helping each other.  I had a strong relationship with my principal, and I appreciated it when she would give me pointers or redirection.  I was not afraid of being called down to the office; in fact, I went down there frequently to ask for her input.

I ate lunch in the teachers’ lounge and enjoyed a lot of laughter with my co-workers.  This was not the negative stereotype, of teachers gathering to complain about students.  Lunch was a fun, positive time.

My second year, I was inducted into the Ooga-Booga tribe.  The students gathered for an assembly, and all the newer teachers were asked if we wanted to participate.  We were led into the gym, by a math teacher dressed up as a cave man-type character.  He directed me to lead the students in “We Will Rock You,” and then I was told to sit on a chair…which, of course, had a wet sponge placed on it!

This does not mean we didn’t work hard.  I taught students with cognitive impairment, and I helped a number of non-readers make significant gains.  In fact, there are likely people who are reading this blog, because I taught them to read during that time!

My third year, I was attacked by a student, and my shoulder was seriously injured.  However, I had the full support of my administration, and we were able to devise a plan to help this student become very successful.  He had no more violent incidents after we implemented the plan, and the next year he made all A’s.

I often told people that teaching gave me an inner joy.  Yes, I complained about the two 30-minute staff meetings/trainings that we had each month, but I honestly loved my job.  And it left me with plenty of free time to spend with Rob.  One of my friends commented that my job was worth it, because they paid me in days off (even though my monetary pay was relatively low).

Like I said, I loved my job, until I didn’t.

It happened gradually, but by the time Iliana was born, teaching definitely had a culture of fear.  The threat of sanctions–which in Michigan at that time, meant most of the staff being fired and the school being taken over by a charter company–put administration on the edge.  Because they were afraid, they targeted teachers who may not be hauling their weight.  And the changes to unions and to tenure law, made that course of action easier.  Teachers became afraid of being fired, and began to throw each other under the bus.

Gone were the days of the fun lounge conversations.  I started to eat in my classroom.  And there was only one more Ooga-Booga induction, after mine.

The demands on our time increased.  I would often arrive before the sun came up and return home after sunset.  My inability to advocate for myself, led to me being thrown under the bus, repeatedly.  I started to dread being called down to the office.

I started sailing in the summer.  We loved it, and we thought that all of our problems would be solved if we moved to a warmer climate, where we could live aboard full time.

And so we moved to Texas, with the intention to eventually live aboard.  I made sure I had a job secured first, accepting the first teaching job I was offered.  We started out living in an apartment.

My first year started out well enough.  I received little feedback, but I felt good about what I was doing.  Sure, the school day was an hour longer, and we had staff meetings (with no defined ending time) once a week.  We had no supply budget.

Then, out of nowhere, the calls to the office started.

We moved onto a boat, hoping that would fix things.  But I was unhappy in my career, yet living on a boat.  We moved onto a larger sailboat, and I began to make friends.  Things were okay, except for the job.

I started to look for a new teaching job, until I was offered a different position within my school.  It was okay.  There was still a lot of backstabbing, but the calls to the office temporarily stopped.  There were even more meetings after school, which I resented.

I began to practice yoga, which led me to carve out a space for myself and to begin to process my emotions, regarding my path in life.  My yoga practice began to become more important than my job, although I had not considered leaving…yet.  But I had begun to make myself and my own needs a priority.

We bought a larger boat.  It reminded me a lot of our first trailer house.  We had tweaked our living space so much, but I was not finding what I wanted to find.

I was unhappy.  The living space, or the state of residence, was not the issue.

It was my career.

I have a Master’s. An MAT, to be exact.  Master’s of the Arts in Teaching.  I am not trained to be an administrator, nor do I aspire to be one.  I am a master of the art of teaching.

Yet, for most of my career, I have hated it.

Not the teaching, but everything else.  The paperwork.  The drama.  The meetings. The buying of supplies.

I was unhappy.  I tried having a side hustle.  But I did not like the marketing, and I was never good at it.

Finally, last year, things got so bad that I left.  I considered leaving after the first week of school, and I submitted my resignation, effective at the end of the year, when we came back from Christmas break.  And even then, I went on FMLA as soon as there were 12 weeks left in the school year. I was stepping out into the unknown.

So here I was, waiting out my contract, looking for employment, with a Master’s degree.  I considered tutoring for awhile.  I love working with students one-on-one, and I would not be constrained by the standardized tests.  However, I would have to either find enough homeschooled students to work with, or work mainly in the evenings.  I did not want to spend so much time away from Rob and Ili.

I knew that I could look for another full-time teaching position, but I was very hesitant to do that, after having so many bad experiences.  So, I returned to my first teaching experience: subbing.

I applied in various districts, tracked down references, and signed up for orientations.  I am currently substitute teaching in two school districts and at a two-campus charter school.  While I had a lot of anxiety when I showed up for that first assignment, I found that a lot of what I thought were my weaknesses, were really just due to being put in impossible situations in my old jobs.

I have very good classroom management, when I have support from my administrators, if I should have to seek their assistance.  I run a classroom very smoothly, when I have sufficient support staff.  And I problem-solve creatively and remain very alert and engaged, when I am not tired and burned out from having to work extra hours in the evenings.

As a substitute teacher, I am no longer a part of the rat race.  Nobody is trying to “catch” me “being bad” or threaten me with termination.  There is a shortage of subs, so I always feel welcome in the building.  There isn’t even competition with other subs, because there are plenty of jobs to go around.

When I substitute taught in college, I would not know whether I would be working, until I got a call at 5 am that day.  Now everything is computerized, so I simply log on the the schools’ websites and choose any available assignments that suit my fancy.  I am currently booked through most of November.

And there are other perks to my new job, that I did not enjoy when I was teaching full time.  I never get bored, because every day is a new adventure.  One week, I taught third grade in the morning and high school algebra in the afternoon on Monday.  On Tuesday I taught pre-k, and on Wednesday I was an aide in a life skills class.  Thursday was my day off, and on Friday I taught a high school business class.

I only teach at campuses I like, where I feel supported by the administration and other teachers.  I started out working five days a week, but I found that I preferred to have one day off, to work on the house and enjoy some “me” time.

At the end of the day, I tidy up the classroom and finish grading any papers from the day.  Then I am free to leave.  No more indefinitely long staff meetings!

My favorite book to read to students!

The only downside to substitute teaching is the pay.  I make about half of what I made teaching full-time, and I will not be paid over summer vacation and school holidays.  However, when I looked at my expenses during my last year of teaching, I was spending about half of my paycheck, just to do my job.  I had a longer commute, I was spending about $100 a week on supplies, and I was buying take-out and processed foods because I did not have the time and energy to cook after a long day.  We have pared down, streamlined our expenses, and plugged some significant holes in the budget, so that we will not notice a significant difference in our finances, once I start getting full paychecks.

I recently read a question someone had posted to a forum, saying that he loved substitute teaching but did not feel like he was living up to his potential.  What does that even mean?  I know that substitute teaching is helping me to come closer to my “potential.”

I have the potential to no longer be a slave to a paycheck.

I have the potential to utilize my strengths and creativity, without being distracted by paperwork, stress, and drama.

I have the potential to feed my family and also spend time with them.

I have the potential to care for myself, as well as my loved ones.

I have the potential to be fully present at my job everyday, and to share my energy and enthusiasm with those around me.

So the next time someone asks me if I have found a full-time job yet, my answer is going to be, “Yes!  Living life is my full time job!”

 

 

About Us, Family Fun

A Birthday Weekend in My “Happy Place”

This post has been a long time in the making.

I turned 40 on September 30, and I wanted to share my celebration at Elijah’s Retreat, in Jacksonville, Texas, with all of you shortly after.  However, I have also been getting settled in at my new job and working on balancing work, family, and myself.  

I am getting there, so today I am writing.

The First Visit

Somewhere in our second year living in Texas, I spent a night Googling activities for children with special needs.  I had seen a Facebook post about a special needs amusement park in San Antonio, and while I was looking for that, I stumbled across a website for Elijah’s Retreat. This was a resort, located about 3 hours away from us, for autism families.  It cost $30 a night and had 3 cabins.

Of course I was interested, but I was dismayed to find that the calendar was booked for the next year.  I followed Elijah’s on Facebook, and when the calendar for the next year opened up, I jumped on it.  Thanksgiving, Christmas, and spring break were full by the time I made my way to the site, but I managed to book two nights on a weekend at the end of summer vacation.

That weekend, Rob ended up having to work, so Ili and I headed out on a mother-daughter road trip!  Rob had looked over my Jeep, and found it to be in good working order.  However, the randomness of life had other plans.

As we were approaching Cleveland, Texas, the car started shaking, badly. I pulled into a gas station and noticed a large goiter on one of the tires.  I filled it with air and hoped for the best.  However, the tire had other plans.

We were stranded at the Love’s in Cleveland.  I called Rob, who would walk me through a tire change, if I could find a jack.  I could not, so I called AAA.  While I was waiting, an employee at the store said that his friend could put on a new tire for $120.  A bit steep, but that would get us to Elijah’s that night, rather than a hotel.

I told Rob, who cautioned me to ensure that the tire is new.  And sure enough, the f, riend showed up with a used tire.  I apologized for wasting his time, and put the AAA guy back on call.  He showed up, put on my spare, and shook his head at the “country bumkins” who were trying to “take advantage of the city girl.”

Rob had found a nearby Motel 6, where Ili and I spent the night.  She likes hotels, so this was fine.  In the morning, we arrived at Walmart as soon as they had opened.  The said my Jeep would have a new tire in 30 minutes.

Ili and I headed to McDonald’s to eat breakfast, then we returned to Walmart.  They were not ready.  Two hours later, my Jeep was still up on a hoist.  They said that oil changes take priority, and that they would not work on my Jeep as long as there were oil change customers.

Rob called, and I loudly explained that I could not take my daughter, who had autism, to an autism resort, because they were holding my car hostage.  Before I could finish my conversation, a manager appeared.  I hung up, and he apologized.  He said I could get my Jeep back right away, with the old tire, or I could wait 15 minutes for a new one.  I got the new tire and was on my way.

When we arrived at Divine Acres Ranch, Iliana was greeted by a volunteer, who took her on a horseback tour of the property.

At the time, the resort was still being run by its founder, Jeff Moore.  He was happy to see us, and offered us an extra night, since we arrived a day late.  Unfortunately, we both had school on Monday.

We had reserved cabin #2, but there was a mix-up, so we stayed in cabin #3, which I refer to as “The Palace.”  In the morning, I woke up before Iliana and enjoyed my coffee on the porch swing.  I was new in my yoga practice at that time, but during savasana, we were always asked to think of our “happiest place.”   To this day, I think of the swing at cabin #3.

Iliana had a great time.  There was one other family staying in the other two cabins, and their oldest drove Ili around in the barrel train.  I called it her “chariot.”  We both cried when it was time to leave.

Visit #3

We did not take any pictures of our second visit, but we had the resort to ourselves.  Elijah’s was struggling financially and in danger of closing.  The price increased to $100 a night, but I knew Rob needed to see it.

Then, the Torres family purchased the property, and we returned last spring, right after I went on leave from my job.

Here I am, on the swing, in my happiest place!

Lots of new changes happened with the “changing of the guard.”  The price went back down to $30, and the “little ranch hand” program was started.  Every morning, Miss Cheryl would drive by with the hay ride, and Iliana could jump on and feed all the animals that morning.  She also had the opportunity to ride a pony everyday, mid-afternoon.

And while attendance was down, Miss Cheryl’s children would come out to the playground and keep Iliana entertained!

Our Most Recent Visit

30 pounds less and one year older, I decided to issue in my fourth decade of life, at Elijah’s Retreat!

The obligatory kitchen picture…

Enjoying cabin #2…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hanging out and feeding the animals!

There was a news crew there that weekend, and here is the segment they aired, which included Iliana!

https://www.easttexasmatters.com/news/local-news/local-autism-retreat-serving-families-as-a-home-away-from-home-/1501423719?fbclid=IwAR0Y0kEBDmw24sOrLZW-kiEGdfAnp0oS3wySG0D_AjmePOC-YqbVD_770rA

Thank you to to Torres family and everyone else who has kept Elijah’s Retreat alive!  We had booked again for Iliana’s 12th birthday.  See you there!

 

Family Fun

The World’s Greatest

When I was teaching full-time, one of my colleagues approached me while we were waiting for the buses to arrive.  “We just listened to a man speak, from Be An Angel,” he told me, referring to the professional development he had attended the day before.  “You have got to look them up.  I think they have a camp that your daughter would be able to go to.”

Always curious about new activities for Iliana, I did look them up that night.  I filled out an application, and, sure enough, she did qualify for their weekend family camp.  So in February, 2016, we made a mother-daughter road trip to Camp For All, near Brenham, Texas.

…And had such a great time, that we made the trip once again in September….

…And three more times.  We didn’t even let Harvey stop us (camp was two weeks after)!

This September was our sixth time attending camp, and it was as wonderful as the past five!

Camp Be An Angel is a family camp for children and teenagers with disabilities and their families.  The camp is free for the families who are selected to attend, and a parent must attend with their child.  The camp is run by Be An Angel, a charity run out of Houston, that also provides services and equipment for children with profound deafness and multiple disabilities.

The camp is held at Camp for All, a barrier-free camp in Burton, Texas.  Both the Camp for All staff and the Be An Angel volunteers facilitate the activities during the weekend.

So here is the story of our latest Camp Be An Angel adventure!

Friday: Early Arrival!

When I was working full time, we always arrived after dinner on Friday.  This year, since I was not yet working at all, I picked Iliana up from school early, and we made it there right before dinner!

The first order of business, was getting settled into our cabin.  There are usually two families per cabin, although once there were three in ours.  Our cabin-mates are usually in the same group as us, and we spend a lot of time together during the weekend.

We were the first to arrive at our cabin, so we found a set of bunk beds and got settled in!  (In order to be accessible, most of the beds in the cabins are not bunk beds).  And yes, that is a yoga book on my nightstand!

Pleased with our work, Iliana was ready to play in the dining hall, which is one of her favorites pasttimes at camp.

And then it was time for the bonfire!

Iiana was very happy to see her beauty pageant buddy, Madison, with her new service dog.

And they sang my favorite camp song, “500 Miles.”

Saturday: Very Busy Having Fun!

We always sleep well at camp, and morning meant breakfast, followed by–of course–dancing!

We saw our friend, Myra, who has been at camp with us all 6 times!

And happily, our cabin-mate was Kimberly, who shared a cabin with us last time as well!

Our day began with horseback riding, which meant that was got a hayride to the barn…

Catching up with some old friends!

Iliana was very happy that some of her friends from previous camps, were in our group.

Everybody can do everything at camp, and they are equipped to make sure that the kids with wheelchairs are able to do any of the activities that they choose to do.  So everybody rode horses!

Then it was off to the barn, to spend time with the animals!

Dali Llama is a very special animal in the barn, because he loves selfies!  Ili and I aren’t that skilled though, so we have someone else take our picture with him.

Here is September, 2016…

April 2017….

September 2017…

April 2018, but a goat was standing in for him!

And here is our latest portrait with Dali!

After the barn, it was time for canoing…

Then everybody caught a lot of fish!

Then it was time to visit the nature cabin…

And everybody had fun in archery!

Iliana always enjoys photography…

And arts and crafts!

It had been a rainy week, but we were lucky to have good weather at camp.  But Iliana got worried when it started raining right before her favorite activity, the zip line.  Luckily, they had an indoor contingency plan.  I had no idea that Iliana could Hulu Hoop!

Time to suit up!

Some kids climbed the rock wall while they were waiting.

Travis, who uses a wheelchair, went around the course first!

Then it was Iliana’s turn!

Zip line time!

In the dining hall, Iliana recounted her adventures and played with her friends…

And we got our very cute picture!

So after all that, it was time for bed, right?

Wrong!

Sunday: Still More Fun to Be Had!

Sunday morning meant picture time with our cabin-mates!

And, of course, more dancing.

Sunday’s singing and dancing always ends with the song “The World’s Greatest,” which always has the effect of making me cry.  Here is a video from September, 2016:

After breakfast, there is an optional chapel service.  And Iliana and I have our own tradition–a walk to the Tree House.

And then, the main event:  the camp talent show!

Iliana sang “Champion” by Carrie Underwood.

Then it was time to return to the dining hall one last time, where Mr. Russ, the camp director, said “Good-bye” to everyone.

 

The end of camp is always bittersweet, but we will be back in the spring!  And Iliana and I have one more tradition, on the drive home…

We always stop at Freezy Frenzy for Thai rolled ice cream!

It was the perfect ending to a perfect weekend!

Frugal Living

Facing Everyone’s (Secret) Greatest Fear

According to Forbes, more than half of all Americans are unhappy with their jobs.  For most of my career, I have been one of them.

Oh, I loved my first job for the first 5-6 years.  It was a mission, a calling, and I felt very confident and effective.  I knew that what I did made a difference, and I am still in touch with many of my former students from that time.  There are people who are reading this blog, because I taught them to read.

But around the 6th or 7th year, I began to love my job less.  With a newborn baby at home, I resented the time commitment.  Changes to the education field made the school environment much more cut-throat.  Yet I stayed there, because it was “secure.”  I said that I needed the income, so we wouldn’t starve.

I did leave, once I had secured a job offer across the country.  That job ended up being even worse, with more time commitments and a much more negative environment.  Yet I stayed, because we “needed the income.”  I needed to feed my family.

Job loss and financial stress are common reasons that people commit suicide.

Image result for poverty clip art

And yet, it is very rare for someone to starve to death in the US.  There are supports and safety nets designed to prevent that.

Poverty is the real fear.  People are torturing themselves, staying in miserable situations, because they are so terrified of being poor.  And tragically, people have even killed themselves, because they could not bear the prospect of poverty.

I knew there was a possibility of financial loss when I went on leave from my job on March 1.  However, I thought it was a very remote possibility.  I had requested assault leave, which I had been told could not be revoked, only discontinued if it was determined that I did not qualify.  And if that happened, I had a great deal of leave time saved up.

Carefully, carefully, I watched the calendar, until I thought I was safe.  Then I received an email saying that all of my assault leave was being revoked, and that my sick days would be applied, starting on March 1.  Additionally, since I had not taught a full school year, my leave time would be reduced.  All in all, I went a month and a half with no pay.

The docked time ate up our savings cushion, which was supposed to carry us through the early fall, after my paychecks stopped and before I started earning money through substitute teaching.  And I learned that getting started subbing was a much longer process than it had been 15 years ago.

My first day on leave, March 1, 2018.

The first thing I did was sign Iliana up for free lunches.  She’s gotten reduced-price lunches in the past, and the process is very quick and simple.  She was approved before the school year began, and this is saving us $80 per month.

After working on job applications, I filled out an application for benefits.  This was very eye-opening, and I learned that a great deal of the ideas people have about “welfare” are simply incorrect.  For example, to get cash assistance, a family of 3 has to earn under $200 a month, and their benefit will be somewhere around $200 a month.  It’s hard to live like a queen–or even pay rent–on that.

We’ve gotten help from an agency, so Iliana began her school year with a new wardrobe of lightly-used name-brand clothing.  I let her school counselor know about our situation, and Iliana will be picking out some more free clothing at Kohl’s next week.

Pride is the only reason for starving in the US, and we certainly are not.  We are in a transitional period, with supports that have allowed me to leave a traumatic situation and take the time to find a path for my career that is in alignment with my long-term goals and dreams.

This is the worst-case scenario.  This is what everyone is so terrified of.  This–our life–is what keeps people stuck in miserable situations.

It’s not scary.  It has taught me volumes about being a part of a community and taking care of each other.  It has taught me more about understanding and not judging.

I have taught in low-income rural America.  I have taught in the inner-city ghetto.  I have been through Ruby Payne training.  I thought I knew all about poverty.

Image result for poverty clip art

And yet the first-hand experience has taught me so much that I did not expect.

Here are some lessons I have learned from our time below the poverty line:

 1.  Most people receive “welfare” and don’t realize it.

Long-term cash “welfare” no longer exists, due to the reforms in the 1990’s.  Instead, we have a number of benefit programs aimed at helping the working poor and families in transition.  If you are in a lower tax bracket, the odds are that you already receive help from some of these programs, or have in the past.

If you have received the earned income tax credit or the child tax credit, you have received welfare.  Free and reduced school lunches, college financial aid, Head Start, rural housing loans, and subsidized housing also fall under the umbrella of “welfare.”

2.  It is not possible to be a “welfare queen.”

Benefit programs are designed to help families through tight times, and they can help fill in the gaps.  However, there is not a single program available that will allow someone to live like a queen.

I’ve already mentioned the limits of TANF, cash assistance.  SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, has very tight restrictions.  After a short period of time, recipients who are not unable to work (due to age or disability) are required to be employed.  SNAP is not an all-or-nothing program, as it gradually decreases as income increases.

Because TANF is so minimal and SNAP is income-based, it is not possible to be living high off the hog and receive assistance.  If you do happen to see someone pay with a SNAP card, then drive off in a Mercedes, you are probably seeing someone in situational poverty.  When you are temporarily experiencing “hard times,” it makes no sense to sell everything you own and replace it with less expensive things.  That hypothetical Mercedes driver will likely be in a hurry to get off of assistance and return to their former standard of living.

3.  Agencies are wonderful resources.

If you have a friend who is experiencing hard times, resist the urge to buy their groceries, and instead, offer to go with them to seek help from an agency.  Agencies can often provide more help than an individual can, and they come with pre-set boundaries.

4.  Don’t judge what we do spend our money on.

I’ve applied for assistance, but yoga and Weight Watchers are the first items I pay for each month.  Neither of these are luxuries for me.  Controlling my weight and receiving support as I recover from emotional eating is crucial to maintaining my health in the long run, and yoga is very important for the maintenance of my mental health.

If you would be fine with a person on assistance buying diabetes medication, then you should be fine with a person paying less for Weight Watchers.  If you would support a poor person paying for antidepressants, then you should also be supportive of a person paying less for yoga in order to prevent that prescription.

And also know that I don’t owe you that explanation.  Neither does the person in front of you in the grocery line, buying ice cream with their SNAP card.  Sometimes the occasional treat is necessary in order to maintain sanity.

5.  Receiving is a vital to being a part of the community.

I know a lot of people who pride themselves on giving, but have difficulty receiving.  Just think about this for a moment.  If you are willing to help other people but are too prideful to ask for the same help, are you not judging the people you are helping?  Are you not assuming that you are better than they are?

Receiving is a beautiful blessing, if you approach it with an attitude of gratitude, rather than shame. If you think that the people you help are deserving and worthy, then you are as well, when you receive help and support.

Receiving helps you to understand interdependence, and I think it has the potential to make us all more generous.  When I am working again, I know that I will donate to the food bank regularly, and possibly even volunteer.

6.  Generational poverty needs more support and understanding.

We are “upper crust” poor people.  I have a “story,” and it is one that anyone–even a strongly anti-welfare person–would sympathize with.   Rob and I grew up middle class, and while we have always been low-income since we’ve been married, our trip below the poverty line is going to be a short one.

However, we need to extend the same understanding to the single mother who grew up on assistance, got pregnant at age 16, and is struggling to make ends meet.  People who ask for help are quick to try and establish themselves as being in situational poverty, if that is the case, because our society is more understanding of middle class families experiencing hard times.

But generational poverty is every bit as legitimate, and the people experiencing it will need much more support than that temporarily embarrassed middle class family.  Nobody is career welfare anymore, and it will take a lot of support to help that single mother to break the cycle for her children.

7.  “Hard times” do not necessarily mean “bad times.”

In her song, “Hands,” Jewel (who has lived in a car) sings, “Poverty stole away your golden shoes, but it didn’t steal your laughter.”    There is an assumption that living on less means being unhappy.  This is simply not the case.

If you are grateful for the help your receive, rather than shameful, you will feel joy.  If you let go of any illusion of security and simply let life unfold, knowing you will be okay, you will feel joy.

A “welfare Christmas” is not necessarily a sad Christmas. We have a local thrift store that stocks unopened toys around the holidays, and we have surrounded the tree with those in the past.  One birthday, Rob excitedly gave me a multitude of presents rescued from the dumpster.

You can find joy, regardless of your financial situation.  Poverty is not a reason to be miserable, and the fear of it is not a reason to torture yourself.

About Us, Boat

365 Days Ago, Today

When you live on a boat, there are milestones that you know are inevitable.

You will have pleasant things, like your first long-term cruise, your first time breaking hull speed, your first time partying with total strangers who are now your best friends, your first time seeing the stars without the light pollution of the city, and so on.

There are also unfortunate milestones, that come with the boating lifestyle.  Your first time running aground.  Your first time making port for repairs while taking on water.  Your first distress call.  Your first small craft advisory.  And, if you are living on the ocean, your first hurricane.

Rob and I frequently discussed that last inevitability.  We decided that it would be ideal if we could experience our first hurricane at our current marina, which is very sheltered.  We are on a very sheltered bayou on a lake that feeds into a bay that is part of the Gulf.  This would help us to be much more prepared if we encountered one while cruising somewhere else.  After talking about it, we decided, as a rule of thumb, that we would definitely stay if the projected wind speed was in the double-digits.  If it were in the triple-digits, we would play it by ear.

Since we moved to Legend Point, there have been a lot of false alarms.  We got all excited about Tropical Storm Bill, which dissapated and was nothing more than some rain and wind.

Image result for tropical storm bill we will rebuilt

While our friends were visiting from Michigan, everyone was getting panicked about “potential tropical storm Cindy.”  People were hunkering down after fighting for the last case of bottled water (yes, there were actual fist fights in stores!).  I checked the forecast and assured my friends that this was nothing.  Sure enough, it didn’t even rain for an entire day.

I was feeling a little cynical as I made my way out to my car for 6 am yoga on August 24 last year, during the suckiest first week of the suckiest school year ever.  One of our neighbors asked me if I was worried about the storm.  I laughed and said, “There is another one?”  He said, “Well….it’s heading for Mexico.”  Then he slowed his speech for dramatic effect, “But it might turn.”  I laughed and continued on my way.

After yoga, I made my commute down the freeway.  The signs all read, “Disturbance in the Gulf.  Fill your gas tank.”  This was unusual, but I was still skeptical.

At work, my department chair immediately asked all of us if we were planning on comiMy ng into work the next day.  I said I would, as long as I could make it through any flooding.  She said she was not planning on coming in.  We received an email from district stating that if we stayed home, it would cost us a sick day.

At lunch time, the department chair said that it was now a hurricane and they were talking about evacuation.  I was still skeptical, because she had alarmist tendencies.  Then Rob emailed me and said we needed to prepare that evening.

S*** was getting serious. I was walking home on August 23 last year, after another sucky day of the suckiest first week of school ever.  As I made my way to my pier, bottle of wine in hand, one of our neighbors asked

My day ended horribly, with me considering resignation for the first time of many.  I got home late, but as I pulled into the marina, I saw a rainbow in the sky.  Then my phone gave its notification beep, and I saw that school was cancelled for both Iliana and me.    I ran to the boat, excitedly proclaiming that something good had happened in my life!

Image result for hurricane harvey rainbow

We went to Walmart, with my prepping list that I had written at work.  I was thinking bagels, sandwiches, and Mac and Cheese.  After everyone had picked through everything, we got gluten-free bagels and bread, fancy organic meat, and Annie’s Mac and Cheese.  Fortunately, we had a water tank, so we did not have to fight over bottled water.  We waited in line at Spec’s, Texas’s favorite discount liquor store (which was already boarded up, but open and busy!), and we thought we had enough “hydration” to get us through the storm!

Part 1

The morning of August 25, 2017, Rob and I walked out to the aft deck as soon as we woke up.  A very dark, low-lying cloud blew over, and then the sky opened up.  It rained the rest of the day.

Rob went into work, and I was at home with Iliana.  We decided to keep her with us, since my parents were not evacuating.  They live in a mobile home on stilts, so we felt better having her on the boat with us, should there be high winds.

She chilled and enjoyed her day…

Yes, we were recently moved onto Loco Lobo, so we had not carpet or wallpaper. Iliana’s room was finished, but the main salon and aft cabin were not.  We slept on a Futon.  And Popcorn, our cat, was quaranteened to the boat.

The power stayed on all day, as the water rose from the storm surge.  I knew it would likely be cut at 5, so I washed a load of laundry and cooked a vegan lasagna.

By 5:00, I was unable to get off of the boat.

After the power was cut, Rob helped me get off the boat for a walk, and then he set up our alcohol stove.

I watched the water level throughout the day.

First this…

Then this…

Then, by 11:00, this…

The docks went underwater overnight, then the next morning, we got what I called “intermission.”  The rain stopped for an entire day.My parents came to pick up Iliana, and Rob and I decided that we really needed to make Harvey Wallbangers.  Unfortunately, Spec’s was closed and boarded up, as was every other business in town.  We returned to the boat, sure that the worst was over.

 

Before bed, Legend Point lost its first two boats, both unmanned.  Obsession was the first, and another followed shortly after.

The lake began receding before we went to bed.

Then it woke us up at 4 am…

Part 2

It was hard to take a picture in the dark, but the docks and most of the power pedestals were completely submerged, as was our dinghy.  I posted on Facebook, writing, “Helllllooooo, Harvey!”

In the morning…

It was during this time that we committed our first act of piracy on the seas.  Our dinghy had sunk, so we had no way to get to shore.  Since this was a potentially life-threatening situation, we decided to “borrow” the neighbors’ inflatable boat.

Rob put on an orange “camp snoopy” life jacket, jumped into the water, and boarded the neighbors’ boat.  He grabbed a large stockpot that happened to be floating by and used that to bail it.  We used that boat to get to shore for the rest of the storm.

Our dinghy, after we rescued it and dragged it to shore!

Rob made breakfast, then while he was at work, I kept myself occupied with cooking!

After work, Rob and I decided to walk to docks (he helped me get off the boat!).

For the next 3 days, our life was lived on the boat, with a once-daily excursion to shore.  We were advised not to walk in the flood water, but the grass was so infested with fire ants, that I always stood in the water while tying up the dinghy.  My feet were constantly covered in ant bites, which I lanced with a razor blade in order to stop the incessant itching.

Our pier had the only bath house that was not flooded, although it had no power.  Using my phone as a light, I took a shower everyday during our shore excursion.  The water was nice and hot the first day, but everyday it got colder, until it was just a cold shower by day 5.

More boats sunk everyday, all of them unmanned.  Altogether, the marina lost 6 boats.

We ventured out to our road, which flooded and receded everyday.  We didn’t leave the marina, because we didn’t want to be unable to get back to the boat.

By day 4, we were getting burned out, and I did what I could to make our lives less miserable.  Rob was no longer going into work.  Still, we were constantly wet.  I tried having one set of clothing that we would wear outside, so that our other outfits would stay dry, indoors, but that never worked.  I tried setting up a drying rack in the office area, but in the humidity, only one article of clothing ever “graduated” from it.

Facebook was jumping with stir-crazy Houstonians, and I had a few friends that I was chatting with constantly on Messenger.  The morning of day 5, I jokingly posted, “Today I think I will take a bike ride and maybe go out to eat.”

One thing that wore on everyone was the constant darkness.  No matter what time it was, it always looked like dusk.  The last time we saw the sun was the morning of day 1, before the clouds rolled in.

On day 5, there was a lot of speculation on Facebook.  Rumors were flying, that it was going to stop raining that night.  My friends in Michigan were insisting that the storm was predicated to come back through, and that we had a lot more rain coming.  I turned off my computer and created my own sunshine in my mandala coloring book.

“Here Comes the Sun”

Before I went to bed on day 5, I looked over the side of the boat and saw this:

And in the morning of day 6, this:

And finally, this!

 

By noon, we could see the docks again.

But our adventure was far from over.  Our power boxes had been submerged, so we were still without electricity.  My parents brought us some more batteries and invertors, and our living space looked very post-apocalyptic.

Rob was going back into work, and working extra hours to repair the damage.  He would bring a battery or two with him and charge it while he worked.

One of my friends let us borrow her Yeti cooler, which was wonderful!

Stores were beginning to open, with police officers at the doors, allowing a limited number of people to go in at a time.  There were long lines waiting to get in.  I was glad we were so well-provisioned, so that I could avoid this.

Two days after the storm ended, we had a yoga class.  The studio had flooded a little, but there was not a lot of damage.  With fans running to help things dry out, Cass led us through a restorative class.  It was a wonderful piece of normalcy.

Friends wanted to know how they could help, and I said that meals would be wonderful, since our cooking options were limited.  We were also unable to do laundry, since we had no electricity and the marina’s laundry machines had been ruined in the flooding.  Various friends helped me with that, and I even enjoyed an actual hot shower while doing my laundry at one friend’s house!

By the weekend, we needed a break.  On Priceline, I found a great deal at the local Extended Stay America hotel.  It may as well have been the Hilton!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We watched a Harry Potter marathon that weekend, which seemed to be especially fitting.

Back on the boat, the lack of air conditioning was definitely adding to the misery level.  It had not been hot during the storm, but afterward it was back to typical Texas August temperatures.  One day, I was determined to help someone who had been flooded out.  I needed the diversion…and the a/c!

Cass, my yoga teacher, had posted on Facebook that her son’s house had been flooded, and people were asking if they could help.  She posted the address, and Iliana and I made a beeline over there!  I was rewarded with air conditioning and was more than happy to help clean up sheetrock, while Iliana played with the kids.

School was cancelled the next week, but a martial arts studio held an extended day camp.  This gave Iliana some structure and got her out of the heat.

I was glad I had obeyed the highway signs and filled my gas tank, because it was a week before any gasoline was available.  The stores, which no longer had police acting as “bouncers,” were very poorly stocked.

Then, finally, on September 11, it was time to go back to school.

I wrote on this paper, “Harvey ate Iliana’s homework!”

Going back to work meant that I could do my laundry before school, in the machines in one of the classrooms.  I also kept water bottles in the freezer at work, so that I could bring them home and have cold water to drink.  I had to hurry home everyday, because Rob was working long hours, putting the marina back together.  After 19 days without power, he finished single-handedly repairing the electrical system.