The good, the bad and the… pensionable?

The Daily prompt for today wants to know: How do you feel about your job? Do you spring out of bed, looking forward to work? Or, is your job a soul-destroying monotony of pure drudgery, or somewhere in between?

Really, does anyone actually “spring out of bed?” Ok maybe I can think of one or two possibilities — like my car-pool partner of many years back who started the day in overdrive and was still in high gear for the ride home. But I don’t know anyone who isn’t at best a teensy bit ambivalent about their job.

I have a good job. It pays well and has great benefits. I have a nice office in a good location. I work with interesting people. I get to do things that matter. I get to exercise my creativity. I get to do things I enjoy, like writing and teaching. I have a boss who appreciates what I do and lets me know it.

My job sucks. I have to waste time jumping through bureaucratic hoops and doing mind-numbing administrative tasks. I have to sit through long, tedious meetings. I lost my parking spot. Some days I go home completely fed up with other people’s problems.

It’s the same job.

Do you have a “dream job?” I did. In fact I got my dream job. At least four times. With a couple of exceptions early in my career, most of my working life has been spent at jobs I really wanted. Every one of those jobs has been fantastic. And, at some point, every one of those jobs drove me crazy. Sometimes all in the same day.

That’s life, folks.  Nothing is perfect. When the point comes in any job when the balance begins to tip ever so subtly away from the fantastic and towards the crazy-making, then I know it’s time for a new adventure.

In the meantime, I don’t expect employment Nirvana. I know there will be good days and less-than-stellar days in any job. In fact, some days there with be good minutes and downright dreadful minutes. Most days, the good minutes come out ahead. Even if I don’t “spring out of bed” to get there.

 

Strive to thrive

Today’s Daily Prompt asks, “Do you thrive under pressure or crumble at the thought of it? Does your best stuff surface as the deadline approaches or do you need to iterate, day after day to achieve something you’re proud of? Tell us how you work best…. show us PRESSURE.”

Do I thrive under pressure? Frankly, I’m never sure how to respond to this question. Do I handle myself well under pressure? Absolutely. I have a reputation for being able to do good work quickly. I’m good at improvising solutions. In a crisis, I’m the one who copes.

The truth is, I put a lot of pressure on myself. I have high expectations. I’m apt to hand things in ahead of the deadline– sometimes just because I worked quickly and got the task done early, and sometimes because I set my own deadline, earlier than the real one, so that I could be absolutely sure I would be done on time.

I was in grade four when I first appreciated the tyranny of my own high standards. I had a big social studies project due: something along the lines of “Everything There Is to Know About Australia That Can Be Derived from Back Issues of National Geographic.” (This was, after all, pre-internet.) I had done a fair bit of work, but I had also done a fair bit of procrastinating. The project was due on Monday morning. Sunday night rolled around and I wasn’t done. I went to bed with my stomach in knots. I had never failed to hand in an assignment on time unless I was sick. I didn’t know what the teacher would say, but I could imagine no  consequence more horrifying than Miss Miller’s disapproval.

Morning came, and I got up and got dressed for school with the demeanor of one preparing for execution. By breakfast, I had worked myself into such a state of anxiety that I was feeling physically ill.

My mom was astute enough to see through the root cause of my ailment. She gently suggested that if I wasn’t feeling well I should probably stay home for the morning, and we would see if I felt better after lunch. I asked her if it would be OK if I worked on my project. She just smiled, nodded sagely, and said that would probably be OK — if I felt up to it.

By lunchtime the project was finished and, miraculously, so was my mysterious stomach ailment. I went off to school for the afternoon, vowing to myself that I would never again put myself in the situation where I was late with an assignment.

There, have, of course, been times since then when I have had to ask for extra time to complete a task. I learned that I could ask for extra time without making myself ill over it. But I still don’t like it if I can’t meet a deadline, no matter how legitimate the reason. The truth is, I think I’ve learned to cope well under pressure by taking control of the pressure — by exerting the lion’s share of the pressure on myself.

Do I thrive under pressure? I’m not sure thrive is the right word. I get a lot done under pressure. I do good work under pressure.  But thrive?

A better path
A better path

When I was on leave recovering from my hip replacement, I had a glimpse of what life would be like without the kind of pressure that has become my norm. I was in better physical shape than usual — in spite of just having had surgery– because I was exercising more  than usual every day. I was more creative — and more creatively productive– than I have been in a long time because I had time to focus, and because the daily walks fuelled my imagination. In short, I experienced something far closer to what I would call thriving than I have ever encountered under even the most exhilarating pressure.

At least now I know what I’m really striving for.

Shirtsleeves and slush

Today’s Daily Prompt asks, “What do you love most about the city / town / place that you live in?”

It’s been a long winter.

Not that I’m complaining. Winter is a big part of the city that I live in. A big part of the constantly changing cycle of seasons. I like that I live in a place that is characterized by a blend of comfortable pattern and constant change.

One of the reasons that this has been a particularly brutal winter is that it has been too much of the same thing. Too much cold. Too much wind chill. Too much snow. Winter’s OK when the bitter days are broken up with moments of warm sun on your face. This winter has hammered relentlessly at us since late November. But today it finally felt like the worst just might be over.

Today, finally, the temperature crept above the 0°C mark. Today I left my down-filled coat at home, and went out in my fleece jacket. Today I took the garbage out in my shirtsleeves.  Today I turned off the baseboard heaters and opened up the patio door for the afternoon. The patio itself is still buried in a three-foot high snowdrift, but the air coming in felt lovely.

Today felt like spring was waking up.

One of the spring things I had to do today was put more washer fluid in my car to combat the muddy splash from the melting snow. Spring is messy here. Melting snow means slushy, mucky streets with puddles waiting for a bus to come along to splash unsuspecting pedestrians. This year we have a lot of snow, so we can anticipate a lot of slush. Spring is also all the sand that was scattered to provide some traction on icy winter streets, now piled in dirty mounds on boulevards. It’s litter–paper coffee cups and cigarette butts that were hidden under the pristine whiteness of the snow–now emerging as a soggy mess. To the untrained eye, there’s nothing beautiful about March in Winnipeg.

And yet all that muck and mess is a sign of better things to come. You have to pass through the grey slush to get to green grass and flowers. March is messy, because March is change  and change is messy.

March is, admittedly, my least favourite month. I am impatient with March. I want to be through the messy part and into the new growth of April. But I know I need to wait–need to give the snow time to melt and nourish the roots of the aspen trees outside my door and transform the grass along the riverbank into a rich carpet of green. You have to live here to really appreciate what it means to know that the bitter cold of January and muck of March will give way to the lush green of June and the intense heat of July.

She stepped out

steppingShe stepped out into space. It was hard to take that first step, but in retrospect it was a bit like jumping out the window of a burning building. The jump was terrifying, but staying in the fire was not an acceptable alternative.

She stepped out, not knowing if the ground would rise up to meet her feet, but believing that it must. It was easier to trust the universe than it was to trust herself. In stepping out, she discovered she could do both.

She stepped out, because no imagined outcome could be worse than the slow soul-destruction of staying where she was.

She stepped out, because she had forgotten what it was like to breathe. To think clearly. To feel whole. She stepped out in search of the person she remembered being, in flight from the person she had become.

She stepped out because it was the healthiest thing she could do.

~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~

This post was written originally in response to a WordPress Daily prompt from several days ago: “Walking on the Moon,” asked “What giant step did you take where you hoped your leg wouldn’t break? Was it worth it, were you successful in walking on the moon, or did your leg break? Photographers, artists, poets: show us RISK.  It took more than a day for me to be happy enough with it to post it. Seriously, WordPress, some things just can’t be rushed!

 

 

Why I teach

school booksThat. Right there. That little furrow on your brow. The way you scrunch up your eyes and let your mouth fall open because you are thinking so hard– trying to make sense of something you’ve just read, or I’ve just said. That flicker on your face that mirrors the firing of your synapses as a new insight gropes its way through the tangled web of memory to find a familiar toe-hold. To take root. To make your mind its home.

And that, too. That particular blend of delight and anxiety in your eyes as you wave your hand frantically in the air, desperate for me to call on you because this time you know you’ve got it, but you still need me to hear you say it so I can reassure you that you were right to be so sure.

The energetic buzz that fills the room as you and your classmates dive head-first into the group task.  Every pause. Every scratchy notebook scribble and rattle of laptop keys. Every burst of laughter.

Even every burst of anger. No, that’s not quite right. I should say especially every burst of anger. I teach for that moment because I know that anger means you are poised to learn something important. I have to stand back and wait while your learning rips off the secure Band-Aid of a long-held assumption, and uncovers a new insight that is raw and fragile and scary.

That point in your assignment where you write that one, perfect sentence. The one that tells me that you have passed the point of telling me what you think I want to hear, and all you care about now is making it your own.

That question you ask. The one that I can’t answer. The one that sends the whole class tumbling and racing and chasing after a new truth. The one that causes me to set aside my carefully crafted lesson plan because now we are really learning. All of us.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

Daily Prompt: …If you’re in your dream job, tell us all about it — what is it that you love? What fulfills you?…

Helpful Cat

lightThe clock radio blinked 5:40 am. Saturday morning. I remembered to turn off the alarm on my phone last night, and the alarm on my clock. I have not yet figured out how to turn off the cat.

She starts by climbing up onto my night-table. It’s an antique pedestal style table with a bit of a wobble to it. The cat’s spring on and off the edges of the table has, of late, added to the wobble. I’m going to have to get creative with wood glue soon. She inspects last night’s tea mug to see if I have abandoned a trace of liquid in which she can dip a paw. She burrows into the tissue box. She might opt to send a magazine or two over the edge.

Then she hops to the book case, where she pauses to swat at the pictures hanging on the wall. If I wasn’t awake before, the threat of my artwork crashing to the floor does it. I hiss a warning at her and she steps over to the dresser-top, where she does a little dance on all the important papers waiting to be filed and takes a bite out of an envelope of theatre tickets.

homeworkEventually I have to give up and get out of bed. I have been told in no uncertain terms that it is time for one member of the household to be served breakfast, regardless of the silly notions the rest of us might have about sleeping in.

We have wryly nicknamed her “Helpful Cat.” If you spread out papers on the table to do your homework, Helpful Cat will assist by sitting strategically on the one paper to which you must to pay attention at this precise moment. If you set a box on the floor and turn around to get the things that you are planning to put in the box, by the time you turn back the box will be full of Helpful Cat, helpfully inspecting the interior for you. Helpful Cat is always volunteering to taste whatever we are eating. Helpful Cat spares no effort in routinely checking the contents of the waste-baskets to ensure that we have not inadvertently discarded something really important.

in box 1Helpful Cat is very independent when it comes to finding productive ways to spend her time. No fancy cat toys needed for her, as long as there is an unsupervised hair elastic or toilet paper roll nearby.

My mind works in strange ways sometimes. I was mentally composing a silly little post about Helpful Cat, when I came across both today’s Daily Prompt and a thought provoking post by Ziya Tamesis at A Day With Depression. All of a sudden I saw the nickname in a new light.

decoratingHow often am I like Helpful Cat– offering “assistance” that is really just interference? When my kids were little I was forever breaking up fights that involved one child raging over something the other had done, while the alleged perpetrator offered up the iron-clad defense that they were “just trying to help.” I remember explaining over and over again that it didn’t count as “help” if it wasn’t what the other person wanted.

I need to remind myself of that lesson from time to time. I need to remember that when I think that someone I love needs help, I need to stop and ask them what would be helpful. I need to resist the temptation to leap in with solutions that are based entirely on my own perspective. I need to stop jumping into boxes and tearing up toilet paper when I should just be listening.

papertp

I’m Not Sister Pauline

The year I graduated was the year they stopped handing out probationary teaching certificates. For years, newly minted teachers in my jurisdiction had been required to put in two full years of (presumably successful) classroom duties before they could be granted a “permanent” teaching certificate. So why the fast-track for the class of ’84? Were we exceptionally fine specimens of pedagogic proficiency? Had we been treated to some new cutting edge curriculum in our final year at the Faculty of Education?

No. We were just very likely to be unemployed. The powers-that-be, having taken a cold, hard look at the local job prospects for new teachers, concluded that there would be a significant number of us who would have difficulty securing full-time teaching positions over the span of the next two years. So they handed us permanent teaching certificates and wished us well.

This policy about-face helped make sense of the bulletin board display that had graced the wall outside the Faculty office all year proclaiming in upbeat posters a myriad of  “other things you can do with an Education degree besides teach school.” It also made sense of how, in spite of graduating at the top of my class with a secondary-school focus in English and Theatre, I found myself come September at a small-town school, 90 minutes away from civilization, responsible for grades 2 thorough 7 Music and grades 7 through 11 Art. But hey, I was one of the lucky ones who actually got a job.

I had no training in the kind of music education that is mandated in the elementary school curriculum. I could read music and play the piano, and I was good at winging it. As for the art, I had taken one university course in my final year of education which was, essentially, “An Introduction to the Provincial Art Curriculum for Teachers Who Have No Art Training But Might Get Stuck Teaching it Someday.”

On the strength of that shaky beginning, I was the “Art Department” at the school for two years. And to tell the truth, I did a pretty good job. I learned very quickly that, if you understand a few fundamental things about art education, there’s quite a lot you can do, even if you don’t think of yourself as an “artist.”

In fact, the hardest thing about that first year as an art teacher wasn’t the art at all. It was Sister Pauline.

I never actually met Sister Pauline. She had been gone for a full school year before I arrived on the scene, but I quickly learned that the teacher who had carried the art courses in the interim had been viewed by staff and students alike as “temporary.” It appeared she viewed herself as temporary too, because she had maintained the art room pretty much as Sister Pauline had left it.

And Sister Pauline had left a lot. She was, as many long-time art teachers are, a masterful scrounger and collector of all manner of things that could be repurposed into art projects. The art room itself was a repurposed science lab, and the shelves that lined the walls overflowed with jars and boxes and bags of… you name it. Feathers, bits of tile, modeling clay, scraps of fabric, and — my personal favourite– gazillions of little glass baby-food jars full of eggshells that had been broken into tiny bits and dyed every possible hue. In a large storage closet stood a huge kiln for firing pottery, surrounded by shelves spilling over with paper in defiance of several fire codes. On the floor next to the kiln sat an open bag of greyish powder, its contents spilling out across the store-room floor. When I knelt down to read the label I discovered, to my horror, that it was some form of powdered asbestos! My first independent decision of my teaching career was to holler for the custodian to “get that frigging bag out of here and dispose of it properly!!!”

Sister Pauline left a legacy that was even more oppressive than the clutter in her classroom. She left the legacy of her formidable reputation.  Sister Pauline had reigned in that art room for twelve years. Even students who were just entering seventh grade and had never had her as a teacher knew what they could expect when they walked into Sister Pauline’s classroom. She was larger than life–so much so that even after a year’s absence her personality and teaching style continued to echo noisily around the art room and reverberate out the classroom door and throughout the school.

At first I attributed it to my own inexperience. It was easy to second guess myself, being new to the profession, new to the school, new to the community. But when we got to second semester and I was still fending off unsolicited feedback from both staff and students that invariably started with the phrase “When Sister Pauline was here…”– it dawned on me that I was going to have to start speaking up and pointing out one very important fact.

I’m not Sister Pauline.

When I realized I could actually say that, it was a big turning point for me.

I’m not Sister Pauline. Yes, I know she did it that way, but now we’re going to do it my way.

I’m not Sister Pauline. I know she always allowed that, but now I’m the one who gets to set the rules.

I’m not Sister Pauline. I know she would never have taught it that way, but I am actually following the curriculum.

By the time I came back for the second year, I had managed to train everyone to stop invoking Sister Pauline as though she was the patron saint of art instruction. It took a little longer to stop second guessing myself.

In my thirty years of teaching and management, there have been other Sister Paulines.  I never cease to be amazed by the human capacity to cling to the way things were in the past, even when that past is gone, never to return. Each time I have arrived in a new leadership position I have been “welcomed” by folks who are eager to tell me how the last manager did things. Or, for that matter, the manager they really liked who retired ten years ago.

It’s not that I don’t value organizational history. On the contrary, I am certainly not interested in reinventing wheels and fixing things that aren’t broken. But if the only argument you can come up with for not trying a new way is that once upon a time someone else did it a different way… then I’m sorry to say you don’t really have a case.

I’m not Sister Pauline. And neither, for that matter, are you.

~      ~     ~      ~     ~

A loose riff on today’s Daily Prompt: “Tell us about the experience of being outside, looking in — however you’d like to interpret that.”

Becoming

As someone who likes to write about  personal change, it would be hard for me to pass up a Daily Prompt about metamorphosis: “Tomorrow is the first day of a brand new year. Tomorrow you get to become anyone in the world that you wish. Who are you?”

OK Daily Prompt, this one is easy, and not just because I wrote this poem many years ago, but because all these years later I still know that the one thing I most want to be when I grow up is to be just like her…

Almost smiling! She hated being photographed.
Almost smiling! She hated being photographed.

Psalm

grand/mother
in my childish eyes
I see you stately and serene
in tailored navy dresses punctuated
with a hint of coloured silk
your sparse unruly crown of grey
all disciplined with net and pins

I am six and I have
asked you the same riddle
every day this week     “what
do you call a dog without
a tail”    and though i
know you’re very smart
you never get the answer
“hot dog” and you always
laugh and i feel clever

we play cards    you teach me
how to lose by playing to
win    you teach me how to win
by letting me

at your funeral we toast you saying
not a woman here who doesn’t wish
that some of you lived on in her

i inherit
your engagement ring    the one
i learn    you flung across a golf course
in a fit  of rage at your fiancé
my grandfather

with this ring
this story
changes everything

grannie I’m still throwing things in anger
and my hair is creeping grey
your ring fits loosely on my hand
i haven’t had it altered
I’ve been praying
i’ll grow into it someday

Striking Clarity

Today’s Daily Prompt invites me to “Tell us about a time you’d been trying to solve a knotty problem — maybe it was an interpersonal problem, a life problem, a big ol’ problem — and you had a moment of clarity when the solution appeared to you, as though you were struck by lightening.” Once in a while a Daily Prompt comes along that irks me so much that I have to deconstruct it. Let’s start with spelling. I don’t think the phrase “struck by lightening” was meant to evoke mental images of armies of rogue hairstylists attacking their unsuspecting victims with forced highlights and bleach jobs, but seriously WordPress, the word is lightning. Without the e. Now that I have that rant off my chest…

I suppose a blog with the tag line “Seeking clarity in the meandering muck” ought to have something to say on the topic of clarity. Certainly there have been times when I have had that “aha moment” where suddenly the solution to a thorny problem seems to present itself to me intact–like Athena springing fully formed from the head of Zeus. Athena is, among other things, the Greek goddess of wisdom, inspiration, strategy and skill. So she is a fitting symbol for solving problems, isn’t she?

Except that that’s not how I generally solve problems. There’s a lot more “meandering” and “muck” in my problem solving process than there are armed warrior princesses springing into instantaneous action.

North - after flood 2Ideas don’t pop up out of nowhere. They germinate down in the river-muck of our minds and we meander along, day after day, not knowing how we are ever going to tackle that problem, until one morning the barest slip of a green sprout breaks through.  It may seem as though the answer has come from nowhere, but in reality you have been growing that answer in the fertile soil of your subconscious for some time before it makes its appearance.  Sometimes I think what we take for a “new” idea is just a sudden willingness to see for what it is a truth that we have been staring at for ages. Often when I have come up with a solution to a particularly tenacious problem, I have realized that the solution has been there all along. The “aha” part was simply my recognition that no one but me was actually going to put that solution into action.

Saying that a solution comes to you “as if you were struck by lightning” is actually more meaningful if you know something about lightning. When lightning strikes something on the ground, the flash that we see is actually travelling upwards. In other words, if you happen to be the unfortunate object of a real lightning strike, the electrical flash we see is lightning is jumping from you into the clouds. If you don’t believe me, read this.

In other words, you are the origin of the lightning strike. Even the solution that seems to have come from out of the blue, has actually come from you. It just looks like it came from somewhere else and hit you.

I find this infinitely comforting. I would much rather believe that the solution to my problems lies within me, than to wait passively for some sort of divine but fickle inspiration.

Maybe the Daily Prompt’s spelling mistake was a fortunate accident. Maybe we are really talking about lightening after all– in the sense of “bringing light to” a situation. The lightning strike isn’t the source of the clarity after all. It just illuminates the problem long enough for us to see that we have it in our power to be the author of our own solutions.