The following post is a slightly modified version of an essay I wrote and presented for the members and coaches of the Invitational Summer Institute for the Boise State Writing Project. The “assignment” was, more or less, to compose and share a piece that introduced ourselves to the group in terms of who we currently were as people and educators, and what factors played into that identity. The pieces that resulted were a bouquet of robust metaphor, one bloom — flower or weed — of which was this essay in three parts.
* * * * * * *
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
from “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” by William Wordsworth
This is a story about hubris, the over-confidence or arrogance that pops up as a tragic flaw in many of our great heroes, leading them to believe that they are invincible, that they are smart enough to control or even master their own fates. And if I am going to tell a story about hubris, I need to give it an epic setting, so I’ll begin my story on a pyramid…
You probably remember this from your ed psych classes. It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which basically says that if your fundamental needs like food and shelter aren’t being met, that you have very little hope of nurturing friendships or building self-confidence or creating something beautiful. We run into it with our students from unstable homes who consequently don’t do so hot when we ask them to explicate Emily Dickinson; you can’t analyze poetry when you’re busy worrying about the fact that your mom is dealing again and your dad is going back to prison and you don’t think there’s enough food in the house to keep your little brothers fed over spring break.
I was a lucky kid. My parents wanted, loved, and took care of me. I didn’t know that we didn’t have much money. I was happy, confident, secure. Early on I made my nest on a kid’s equivalent of the peak of Maslow’s pyramid. I had every reason to believe that I’d live happily ever after in the land of self-actualization. And why not? We’ve talked about tracking in schools, about Dinosaur Group and Eagle Group, and since this is a story about hubris I’ll admit that I was Queen of the Eagles. Thinking about Johnston, I realize that being so bright turned me into a fixed-frame thinker – not the sort who assumes she can’t, but the type who assumes that she is so smart that everything ought to come easily. And my assumption panned out – and kept panning out. Music and math came easy to me. Writing, reading – I was reading chapter books in kindergarten. I typed 100 wpm in sixth grade, which is the year I first took the SAT and scored highly enough to go to college.
Sure, I couldn’t kick a ball or climb a rope – what purpose was there in that anyway? (You see now how fixed in place my view of my own abilities were. I would never climb a rope. I was not a runner. I was no good at soccer. I was born that way and would always be that way. It wasn’t worth trying to change, because it was unchangeable. If I had video of my panicky tantrums as my parents tried to convince me to keep trying to learn to ride a bike, we could all have a good laugh right now.)
Sheer smarts took me through school, into college on scholarship, to national conventions where I gave keynote addresses and won awards. People told me I was so good at things, that I was so smart. I demurred, finding the polite words to downplay and deflect, because I’d learned long before that being a smart girl didn’t tend to win you many friends. I’m not sure I ever worked at anything, and when I got bad grades in tough college classes, it was always the professor’s fault. If you’re finding me a bit distasteful now, you can join the club; I’m president, of course.
This is what I believed in my early 20s: I believed that I would marry my best friend, that we would do our student teaching and both become teachers, that we would wait a respectable number of years and then have four children, that we would live in our beloved home until we outgrew it, at which point we would rent it out as an investment property, that we’d live a good life surrounded by both of our families, that we’d likely never be rich but that we’d be comfortable and happy and have many grandchildren. I believed these things would transpire because everything I had ever wanted had been easy for me to get in the past.
The saddest painting I ever saw
was on the carpet in my friend’s hallway
where he tripped one night
carrying a gallon of red.
from “The World as Seen Through a Glass of Ice Water” by Dobby Gibson
I married my best friend. We did our student teaching simultaneously, sucking all the equity out of our home to do so. I got a one-year job and then was lucky enough to get the job I have now. He was passed over for job after job because he didn’t have coaching experience. The economy crashed. We tried to scrape by on my salary and whatever makework he could get. There are a dozen different really hard stories tucked into and beneath this paragraph but I’m going to set all but one of them aside for now.
For a dozen reasons that seemed excellent at the time, we waited and waited to try for a baby – and then when we finally got around to it, it didn’t work. It was supposed to have been easy; after all, if some of my dimmest students could get knocked up without trying, surely a pair of dedicated smartypants like us could make it work, right?
We emptied our very tiny savings account into an appointment with a fertility doctor who didn’t even look at us for the first twenty minutes of her sales pitch for in-vitro. They gave me pills that almost gave me a stroke and had me inject myself, tearful with nerves, with syringes directly into my gut. I had tried to tell the doctor that I was extremely sensitive to medications and should start with a lower dose; when she didn’t listen, I ended up hyperstimulated, which means that you simultaneously produce enough eggs to become Octomom three times over. I remember sitting there with an ultrasound wand wedged in an uncomfortable spot, reading failure and the waste of 23 potential babies on the display screen, while they tried to press me into trying a treatment that would cost half a year’s salary.
They prescribed a round of cancer medication made from the urine of postmenopausal women but neglected to mention the astronomical cost or the tremendous risk of fatal birth defects. We walked away, took a couple hundred bucks and drove to Seattle. We watched the Broncos play the Bulldogs on a tiny Red Robin television and joked that if Kellen did well, and we got pregnant on the trip, that we’d name the baby after him. If it were a girl, we’d name her Ikea.
And then we got pregnant.
And then, on the day before our first prenatal appointment, on my 31st birthday, we became abruptly not pregnant.
I know we’re not the first couple to have a miscarriage. I know I share this grief with some of you, and that some of you have much harder stories to tell. But this is the hardest story I’ve had to tell so far, though, and now that I’m six months out (I would have been 37 weeks today) I can see that this is the chapter of my story in which I finally started to learn some things.
What have I learned?
I’ve learned how much I hate euphemisms. It is bad enough to lose a house, which we did last summer – but to lose a baby? That’s just careless.
I’ve learned how good hope tastes after months and months of despair, how light you feel when you know that you are going to have a baby, what a delicious secret it is to have.
I’ve learned about changing your prayer midway through as you sit white-knuckled at the red light before the ultrasound clinic — knowing, even if you don’t want to admit it, that there is no longer any point in praying that everything will be okay, and that all there is left to pray for is strength.
I’ve learned about a level of physical pain that I never imagined existed, and how the emotional pain lasts far longer than the memory of the physical.
I’ve learned how long it takes for lost blood to replenish itself, and how your head will pound and spin after climbing the stairs to your bed or your classroom long after your colleagues have forgotten that you were ever sick. I’ve learned how lonely recovery from an essentially invisible injury can be.
I’ve learned that regardless of how smart you are, you cannot will yourself to stop hemorrhaging. I’ve learned that regardless of how smart you are, you cannot will yourself not to pass out in the emergency room corridor when the nurse steps away. I’ve learned that regardless of how smart you are, you can still end up with frighteningly low blood pressure on a gore-soaked gurney with a steady stream of strange men peering at your private parts. You can’t smart your way out of seven or eight IVs, a breathing tube that scrapes your throat raw, the blinding lights of the OR. Regardless of how smart you are, you can’t make yourself stop shaking with terror as they slide you onto the operating table.
I’ve learned that I am not smart enough, or strong enough, or good enough at anything, for this. I do not know how to deal with this… yet.
I am broken. I need to be a teacher. I need to be a supportive wife for a beloved husband in crisis. I need to be a supportive daughter and sister for a family that has always leaned on me to provide their levity. I need to have thoughtful discussions about agency and learning models and inquiry. But look, I’ve fallen all the way down the pyramid…. I have no security…. How can I dream? How can I philosophize? How can I be the strong one when my substance is as compromised as a novel dropped in a hot bathtub?
I can’t sing with the other animals. Because it’s
hard to know what an animal will do when it
stops singing. It’s complicated, you know; it’s just
from “Dear Lonely Animal,” by Oni Buchanan
These are the things that I want to do:
- curl up on a sunlit couch and read a bad book
- be a small child again (or, lacking that, perhaps a horse or a bluebird or a housecat…)
- sleep until someone wakes me up and tells me that they have solved my problems while I was away
- wander quietly on a beach, collecting white pebbles
I do the first thing – often, too often probably – and I do the fourth thing, last weekend.
There are many things dotting the gritty sand that stretches out to meet the Pacific on the far side of Oregon. Driftwood, bits of rusted litter, alien uprooted plants, broken seashells, belly-up corpses of crabs so small I could hold a dozen in my hand. At certain times of day, there are mollusks and starfish and squishy green things that look like mold but that swell shut to protect their centers if you poke them. At other times of day, ruffled lines of sea foam arch along the sand like tidal rickrack. And, depending on the beach, there are pebbles – little bits of agate and quartz and basalt – that have been beaten and battered and ground up by the sea until they are perfectly smooth, rounded coins of stone.
I cannot be a small child again, no matter how hard I wish. But like a small child, I can gather my treasures. And so I take a 35-cent thrift store jar, and I roll up my pants to keep the hems from getting sandy, and I hunt for white pebbles.
For every several hundred pebbles there will be a white one. For every dozen or so white pebbles, there will be one that is perfect in color – no black veins or yellow spots. And every so often, one of those will be just the right size and thickness to become a worry stone like the one that my grandfather, whom I never met, found on the Gulf of Mexico while in the Coast Guard at the beginning of WWII. He carried it in his pocket when his first marriage failed, when he met and married my grandmother, when their first infant daughter died, when he told his employer that he had cancer and was fired, when his brothers said they’d take care of his family – lying, because as 1950s Catholics they never acknowledged his second family as legitimate, when he moved his family to California in a last ditch effort to find work, when he knew that he wouldn’t live to see his daughter – my mother – turn eleven.
His pebble was black; I don’t know why I am hunting white ones. Probably because black sea pebbles often dry to reveal they’re actually gray or brown, but a white pebble is white wet or dry. Probably because white pebbles are hard to find but easy to spot. I have always liked the illusion of a challenge.
The pebbles were supposed to be a metaphor. And they are, but the problem is that they are a metaphor for too many different things right now, so I can’t finish connecting the dots. Depending on my mindset, the metaphor is one of survival or despair. It fits both patterns. The thing, though, that sticks in my mind now as I tell myself to stop picking at the scab forming over this draft, is this: as I meander down the beach collecting pebbles, the ocean fills my ears and I lose track of time. And when I look up, I see that I have covered far more ground than I imagined. I have been looking so intently at the ground beneath my feet that the distance has vanished before me, and I am so, so far from where I began.