Identity Crisis

If you follow me on Instagram, you know I’ve recently embarked on a 100 Day Project of writing six word stories. I’ve written six word stories before, but they’ve been exclusively about my school life, only written on school days. This time, I’m not sticking just to school, partly because of this piece I’ve been working on for nearly two years. I think it’s finally in a place where it can be published. I think.

I’m not entirely sure who I am anymore.

My social media bios and my website here succinctly declare: Teacher. Writer. Musician. Yet I am not sure that any of those monikers are correct.

Perhaps it’s a mid-life crisis I’m feeling, this unsettled mush of being unsure of what I want to be when I grow up. I fell into teaching a bit by accident, and it’s worked out wonderfully. But the times they are a-changin’, and I don’t know how many more years I have left in me. So while I’m still teaching, my most recent attempt at a book has stalled out multiple times and I no longer teach piano lessons. One out of three ain’t bad?

I’m left with this dilemma: if I’m not a teacher, writer, or musician, what am I?

And I’m not talking about how will I pay for my lifestyle–I’m fairly resourceful and I think I know enough people who could help me figure out private sector options if needed. No, I’m talking about who am I, if not a teacher?

This is a question I’ve been wrestling with, and most of time, I shove it to the far corner of my brain. But then I read a piece from the Harvard Business Review about the relationship between careers and identity.

Some of the article doesn’t apply to teaching because, well, no matter how many hours I work or service I provide to the school and district, I’m not ever bringing in a six-figure salary. But then, near the end of the article, these questions:

How much do you think about your job outside of the office?
Is your mind frequently consumed with work-related thoughts?
Is it difficult to participate in conversations with others that are not about your work?

How do you describe yourself?
How much of this description is tied up in your job, title, or company?
Are there any other ways you would describe yourself? How quickly do you tell people you’ve just met about your job?

Where do you spend most of your time?
Has anyone ever complained to you that you are in the office too much?

Do you have hobbies outside of work that do not directly involve your work-related skills and abilities? Are you able to consistently spend your time exercising other parts of your brain?

How would you feel if you could no longer continue in your profession?
How distressing would this be to you?

Reading these questions, I realized my identity is 100% wrapped up in “teacher,” and I don’t think that’s a good thing. Because I think I am–and I want to be–more than my job. And there’s never been a more acute time where figuring out what that entails.

I very well might keep teaching at my current school until I meet the Rule of 85 (nine more years) and can retire. I enjoy the content I teach, I enjoy my colleagues, and I enjoy my students. But what happens if one of those legs falls out from under me, and it’s time for something new?

A friend asked me the other day what my summer plans were. Other than a quick trip to D.C., I have no concrete plans, and usually I do. I’ve been thinking about summer ever since, and the beginnings of a plan are taking shape. Rest and read–obviously–and find one or two activities that I like to do, that I want to do. My summer’s goal is to start creating a life that doesn’t fall apart when I’m no longer teaching, and might actually grow into something far beyond the limitations that come with creating a life based on a career.

Will writing and music be part of that? I’m sure it will be; I don’t think those parts of me will ever go away. But I’m feeling a pull toward looking for more, and I think I’m ready to figure out what “more” looks like.

Existential Paradox

I really had planned to write more regularly this month, sharing a variety of tools from my mental health toolbox, just in case someone who stumbles on this sparse space of the Internet might find it helpful.

But I forgot what May does to me in a normal school year, let alone wrapping up a school year which I, my friends, my colleagues, and my students all completed amidst a global pandemic.

Existential crises have abounded the past two weeks:

Does anything I do even matter?
I feel so helpless when I see (friend, colleague, student) struggling.
Why can’t we just assume everyone is just doing the best they can with what they have?
Why are some people just flat out mean?
Why are some people just flat out selfish?
With all the mean and selfish people in the world, why do I even bother trying to be kind to anyone?

It starts to spiral for me, and I struggle to find my footing when questions like these batter me. I showed a class this clip from Wonder Woman last week, and I almost cried, because I felt that—using a shield against a barrage of ammunition was too strong a metaphor to take in.

So what to do when the existential crises batter me and the panic attacks set in and no footing can be found?

Well, last week, a pint of Haagen Daaz Rock Road did help slightly.

But here’s a mental health paradox. When the crises and attacks hit, the instinct is to withdraw. Hop in bed, pull the covers over my head, and try to sleep long enough to at least feel a little more numb to the barrage.

The paradox is this: connection is necessary.

It’s sometimes difficult to reach out when my head is swirling with oh so many thoughts. But reaching out—texting a group chat or making time to talk in person with a friend—that is what saves me, every time.

Also, it’s hard to do, every time.

I’m still feeling all manner of existential crises, every single day. But I’m lucky.

I have a great family, with wonderful sisters who answer my texts.
I get to eat lunch every single weekday with people who notice if I’m down and don’t dismiss my existential crises as hysteria.
I have friends all across the country who, if I called, would listen to my endless list of unanswerable questions.

The trick is to take the step and ask for the connection, to not withdraw.

So think about that if you’re feeling the push to withdraw. Send me a text, give me a call and I’ll sit with you for a spell.

The Next Ten Minutes.

I didn’t want to write today.

But I am, and part of the reason I am here is because showing up and trying is one of the tools in my mental health toolbox.

It’s never easy. Never. But the tool here is not just showing up and trying, it’s also giving myself a time limit. I will show up and try for ten minutes, and if after ten minutes I decide I am done, then I accept those ten minutes as an absolute victory and go back to whatever wallowing I might have been in prior.

This tool is related to another one, and that’s exercise.

I hate exercise. So much. I hate changing into different clothing, I hate sweating, I hate changing out of the sweaty clothing and I hate feeling like I need another shower.

But I don’t always hate the actual exercise part. I rather enjoy going on walks and listening to an audiobook. I actually like lifting my tiny weights and feeling the slightest bit sore the following day. And stretching—oh how I love stretching.

Getting into the clothes is the biggest part of the battle, but like with my writing tonight, I tell myself “ten minutes. I can do ten minutes, and if I’m done after that, then I’m done.” One technological advancement that has helped with this is fitness apps.

I used Peleton’s app for several months and really enjoyed the strength and stretching videos. And then I wound up with a six month free trial of Apple Fitness, so I canceled Peleton (because free > $12.99 a month), and I have been very pleased with Apple Fitness and plan to keep it after the trial ends.

The benefit to both apps, though, is the ability to filter workouts by time. One of the time options?

Ten minutes.

I can do anything for ten minutes.

Sometimes, an effective mental health tool for me is just showing up for ten minutes. After all, I didn’t even feel like writing when I started this, but once I started, I kept going for twenty.

For actual real mental health resources, check out the National Alliance on Mental Health.

Mental Health Awareness Month

May is Mental Health Awareness month, which seems like as good a time as any to do more regular writing. I’ve tried to be more open in the past about my depression and what I’ve had to do to manage it, so a few days this month, I plan to share tools out of my mental health toolbox.

I am not a mental health professional, so I share these things with a bit of trepidation in that regard. In no way am I suggesting that taking any of these tips to heart will make anyone’s life (including mine) any mentally healthier. That said, with the number of people in this world who are hesitant to seek professional help for whatever reason (and there are many) maybe something I write about can help someone breathe a bit easier when having a rough time.

So here’s tool #1: watch TV with intention by scheduling a viewing plan based on my streaming services.

It’s so easy to fall into a binge of something mindless, and I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes watching Guy’s Grocery Games for an entire day feels like a cocoon protecting me from feeling anything in my own life. Though I tend to end those days with a headache and feeling worse about myself for laying on the couch for hours with nothing to show for it.

Those binges are not intentional consumption that leads to a deeper appreciation of an art form, and appreciating art has always been an element of my own cognitive behavior therapy. Something about sitting on my couch with a bowl of popcorn or other snack with a movie or TV show I’ve not yet seen, with the goal of evaluating the art connects helps me. How is the acting? The writing? The costumes? What is the director trying to communicate about the human condition?

Sure, this might seem little froufy to some, but it helps get me out of my own head for a couple of hours, and almost always inspires my own creativity.

So how to decide what to watch? There’s so many lists out there. A favorite of mine is the American Film Institute—they have several lists. The website Letterboxd also has user-generated lists that range from typical to wacky.

There’s always the route of looking at what’s won awards lately—Emmys and Golden Globes have the television categories.


The point is to not just sit mindlessly in front of a screen while autoplay decides for me. The point is to make a choice for myself—and to schedule it into a calendar. Make it an event. On Thursday nights, find out why people are talking about Ted Lasso. On Sunday afternoons, hit up something on AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Laughs list.

Being intentional about what I’m watching has occasionally helped my mental health. When I open my Google Calendar and see I have a movie or TV show specifically planned, it gives me something to look forward to. Making a choice about something as small as a movie or TV show–when I’m really low–reminds me that I *do* have the capability to make other choices as well.

For actual real mental health resources, check out the National Alliance on Mental Health.

Dave.

It’s been two months since I have posted here; I’ve written on scraps of paper and random digital documents, but between stress and varying degrees of grief and loss, I’m stuck after a paragraph here and a paragraph there. But I didn’t want today to end without sharing a little about someone who was important to me. The harder topics can wait a bit longer.

I’d like to tell you about my friend Dave.

He loved watching basketball.

He loved good food. Like, really good food. Like, when he and I went out to eat, I always felt underdressed and out of my league. He never made me feel that way, though.

He loved the arts.

He loved creating art. He was so wickedly creative.

He was a gifted choreographer. So gifted, that to this day, the only production of “Oklahoma” I’ve been able to sit through was one he choreographed. And that includes the film version *and* the PBS version with Hugh Jackman.

He saved me from quitting my job, when I was certain I would never be good enough. He assured me I was.

He gave the best hugs.

He knew how to get the best out of people.

He was a lively lunch companion.

He had the impish-iest of grins, and loved to tease.

He never yelled at me for missed notes in the dozens of songs I played for his students. And one year, when I was certain I could not play the end of “We Both Reached for the Gun” any faster, he grinned his impish grin and said, “Yes you can Jules, this is easy.”

He was one of the few people in my life who called me Jules.

I had a crush on him most of the time we worked together. I think it was hard for anyone to not have a crush on him—he was so charming, and made me feel like I was the most important person in the room, as I’m sure he did for countless others.

He took the leap into grad school the year before I did. I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to go if he hadn’t taken the risk first. Who leaves a secure teaching job to follow their dreams? Dave does.

He wasn’t perfect, as none of us are.

He hurt my feelings from time to time.

He made me angry.

He made me sad.

He was human, and I adored him.

Last week when I learned just how sick he was, I crumpled, but hoped I’d be able to see him.

Today, I am crushed at the news of his passing.

This week, I’m going to a right fancy restaurant and will savor every bite of a well-prepared meal. I will watch a musical (but not “Oklahoma”) and pay special attention to the choreography. I will share stories with friends about things I loved about him, and things that drove me crazy about him. And going forward, I’ll try to take pieces of his best, most supportive qualities, and do the same for those in my sphere of influence.

Love you, Dave. Rest in peace.