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When I was 9, my dad built a trailer to pull behind our red Malibu classic station wagon. We crammed it and the car full, leaving just enough space for my little brother’s car seat to sit in the middle of the back seat and me next to him. I don’t remember much about that move, because I slept through much of it. My strongest memory of that trip is the afternoon stop for coffee. Wherever we were I would always order the cherry pie. The end result of that trip was our eventual move to Aberdeen, Wa.
For the next thirteen years, if anyone asked me where I was from my first answer was always Minnesota. My logic was that I was born there, and all my extended family was there: my aunts and uncles, older and younger cousins. When I met my cousin for lunch the other day, she reminded me of something else. Apparently, I also used to constantly talk about moving back to Minnesota. Someday I would live here again. Though I don’t remember talking about this in particular, I don’t doubt it is true. Well, after thirty-two years, I have apparently gotten my wish.
As with most wishes this is good and bad.
Now that I am ostensibly “home.” I feel less at home, and more homesick, than I have in a long time. The gift of not having strong ties to particular physical space is that I can general make any place I am feel like home. The problem with this is that my definitions of home are often tied to particular groups of people.
So, while I don’t miss the job, the humidity, the struggles I faced, the decrepit house we lived in, I do miss my Southern friends, my Southern family. Though many of my grad school friends have moved on to their careers other places, the most important were just an hours drive away. My work friends, who I never saw enough of, the most important of whom I could have worked with again this year. My Durham friends, who I saw even less of, but who had just moved less than a mile away. Though not ideal in so many ways, my Durham life had just coalesced in important ways; yet, between May and July I blew it apart.
Certainly missing my friends isn’t the only thing making me feel less than at home in my new location, but it is probably the most obvious and least complicated.
When I accepted this job, the DH and I had some idea of what we were getting into. After all, we both spent some time growing up here and met at a college in southern Minnesota. Neither of us were surprised things started getting cold at the end of September; certainly, we weren’t happy about it, but we remembered enough to expect it. What we had forgotten, however, was one of the best things about fall in the North. The unexpectedly warm up. After a couple of weeks with highs barely in the 60s, grey skies, and occasional freeze warnings.
We’ve been blessed with a gorgeous, sunny, 80 degree weekend. Granted my ability to appreciate this weekend has been somewhat limited. My head really hates these kinds of sudden changes in the weather, and lets me know that with terrible headaches. Whenever the Advil kicks in, though, I have made it a point to get outside to do something. I mowed the lawn one last time, and played some catch with Bradley. Anything I could do to enjoy this reprieve from the cold, dark winter I know is coming. Yes. I said it. Winter is coming.
It wasn’t until last night, when the tightness in my neck and shoulder returned after dinner, that a different reprieve ended. I remembered: how I’d been sick at the beginning of the semester, how I’d been sneezing frequently and with a lot of force for the last week; how I have been pretty stressed about my new job; how all of those things are slightly different, but very much the same way I’d been feeling seven years ago. As those things dawned on me, I realized the date, and that for the first time I’d completely forgotten Stroke Day.
Seven years ago, on October 4th, I suffered an stroke, specifically an arterial dissection in an artery on the right side of my neck. I was just 35, so it surprised everyone from my family to the doctors, who took 13 hours to diagnose me. To this day no one really knows what caused it. Since then, I have always found a way to “celebrate” stroke day. Nothing big, so maybe commemorate is a better word than celebrate. This is the first year that Stroke Day passed completely unnoticed by me, until I started thinking about my headache that is.
That I could forget Stroke Day this year is remarkable, since a good friend of mine, who suffered a brain aneurysm has spent the month blogging about her story and preparing for a fundraising 5k. I have, for reasons you can probably imagine, avoided reading Niki’s story. Seeing her posts promoted on Facebook and her race photos, however, probably should have put Stroke Day on my radar. Once I remembered however, I had to work pretty hard not to worry excessively about my headache.
Having a stroke, learning to walk again, writing and teaching again for the first time, those are things that you don’t really forget. More importantly, they are things your friends and family do not easily forget. One thing I have always maintained is that my friends and family were much more deeply scarred by my stroke than I was. I couldn’t see myself getting a spinal tap in the ER; in and out of consciousness in intensive care. The doctors weren’t tell me all the worst case scenarios possible: I would never wake up, never walk, never be the same. When I finally “woke up,” and began my recovery, I felt normal. Yes, I had obstacles and things to do, but I dealt with them the same way I do everything, I just did it. (One foot in front of the other, remember.) I couldn’t see the differences in my personality, in the way I moved. One result of this has been that I am typically able to worry much less about my health. Maybe a better way to describe it is that I am able to treat my health much more normally than my friends and family. For me a cough is just a cough, and a pain is just a pain.
For a long time, every sneeze, cough, or mention of pain meant the DH would ask, “Are you okay?” in a particular tone, then hover over me until I was back to normal. Intellectually, I understood his concern; emotionally, it was stifling and felt like I could never fully recover until everyone would start treating me normally. For the longest time, I just refused to talk about my health. If I had a headache, I took some Advil and Tylenol and did my best not to mention it. My reprieve, my ability to forget stroke day, and then my realization in conjunction with my headache, actually helped me to understand the DH’s worry a little better. I knew my headache was just a headache, but once memories of the stroke began it was almost impossible to get them to stop.
My friend Niki, who made it through her brain aneurysm, talks a lot about celebrating her “Life Day,” the day she had her successful operation. I think she like, a lot of people, sees my insistence on remembering Stroke Day as somewhat morbid and negative. I don’t see it that way at all. Remembering Stroke Day, or this year forgetting it, for me is about recognizing my own vulnerability, recognizing my ability to get up and keep going, and recognizing the strength of everyone who went through that experience with me.
Well, that didn’t take long.
I have been at my new job for just over a month, and already I feel a little like I am struggling to keep up, and swimming in self-doubt. Intellectually, I know that is just a function of the new job territory. As usual, though, knowing it doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to live through.
Moshe usually does a pretty good job of helping me live through it. He is generally pretty attentive to our moods, and is a wonderful snuggler.
My to-do list, which I know is currently no more than it was at my last job, feels overwhelming. Consequently, I have spent the last week beating up myself up for not getting enough done, while I find ways to keep myself from doing the things that would make me feel like I had accomplished something. Yes, feeling overwhelmed makes me less productive instead of more productive. We all have our silly ways of making ourselves miserable, and this is mine.
Typically, this is about the time in every semester, when I go through something like this. This time just feels bigger than normal, because I am also feeling the pressure to prove myself at my new job, to adapt to life in a new region, a much smaller town, and to support the DH as he tries to do the same and look for a new job. Do I have a conclusion for all this? Not really, the only thing I know to do is what I do all the time. Just get through it.
I know this is something that many people go through when they take a new academic job. I would guess also that people working other places go through it too. There is always a point in the first year when the reality of a new job starts to wear away the shine on the possibilities of the new job, and that is why I wish I could say, “I did these five things, and it helped me through this funk.” The reality though is that I don’t have anything better than I just get through it because I have to. Sure, I have tactics to help me get back on track, but mostly they just involve tricking myself, and faking it until I make it.
The primary way I trick myself is by abandoning my To-Do list in favor of recording things on my Emergent Task Planner. It helps me focus on what I got done instead of what I thought I should get done. Usually, this tactic allows me to feel a little less overwhelmed, which helps me ease back into a productivity that I am comfortable with.
October 1, 2015
The first thing I read that day was a thread from a professional listserv. A professor asking advice from colleagues about how to deal, and help her class deal, with the shooting of a student.
The first thing I wrote that day was a conference proposal about the ethics of writing center sessions, and their connection to diversity and inclusivity
Because I had several writing tasks that day, I kept myself away from social media and news sites. It wasn’t until after lunch that I heard about the massacre at Umpqua Community College.
The Pacific Northwest is a large place. Physically, I am not from anywhere near Umpqua Community College. I did, however, begin my educational career at a community college in the Pacific Northwest; perhaps, that is why this particular incident of school violence feels different to me.
Though I went to community college in Washington and perhaps things are different in Oregon, the community college mission is so closely tied to region and place that I feel comfortable generalizing a little bit from my own experience. With the caveat that I am only speaking from my experience as a student: Community colleges in the Pacific Northwest are different than I have seen elsewhere, because, though they provide technical support and programs, they function more like junior colleges preparing students for transfer to four year schools.
I do not joke, or exaggerate, when I say that the best part of my education happen at that community college. I learned how to think; In a 10 week quarter learning community, I did nearly as much writing as I would do for my dissertation. Most importantly, my time in the community college classroom introduced to the importance of diversity of all kinds in the classroom. My community college classroom included traditional students fresh out of high school, recent returners, like me, with a year or two of “real world” experience, grown men and women forced into retraining by the declining industries in our area. Throughout my studies there I learned to work with people of different faiths, races, sexuality, and abilities. Was I always the best friend and all I could be, no; I was naive, and I was learning.
Of course, I wasn’t able to articulate the importance of my experience in that Northwest community college until I left it. Until I sat in an undergraduate classroom where everyone there looked the same, and though I couldn’t articulate it, I knew we were missing important perspectives. Until I moved south where I could really learn about race, racism, and how my silence and support was sometimes better than my best intentions. Until I taught at a community college where technical programs were valued over liberal and general education courses.
Certainly, my image of my community college is tinted in the rosy glow of nostalgia, but even so I would never have called it an idyll or safe space. I was pushed, challenged, and yes … sometimes it was uncomfortable, but I was never afraid. Having been away, having my own new perspective, it was that little difference; my confidence in my physical safety, that allowed me to accept the push, the challenge, and the discomfort of my community college education. That is the little difference, the confidence in their physical safety, that the students of Umpqua Community College, and many other community colleges lost yesterday. As I grieve for the lives lost, the lives irrevocably altered, I also grieve for that lost confidence, the lost element that enabled so much of my own learning.
One of the posters to that thread on the professional listserv reminded everyone of “the question from Mary Rose O’Reilly that Claude Mark Hurlbert put before us at IUP: “Is it possible to teach English so that people stop killing each other?””
Perhaps, I am not the English teacher I thought I would be when I was at the community college. Heck, I am not even the English teacher I thought I would be in grad school. As of October 1, 2105 though, I am an English teacher ready to wrestle with this question; to do everything in my power to “teach English so that people stop killing each other.”