I just removed my watch after an abbreviated, “run,” with the dogs. Beneath its smooth band was a sweaty clump of dirt. This is significant because, like a lot of our personal dirt, no one except for its owner would have known it was there, and even I wasn’t fully aware of it. But I know how it got there. During my run through the woods I tripped and fell. This is so rare for me to do and I didn’t even quite know what the hell it was that tripped me, though I went back and looked. No one saw me and I wasn’t even hurt much. My pride was still stung though, and my hands and knees were slightly abraded. I lay there for half a moment on my chest and belly, and just as quickly I was up and brushing off the dirt and leaves. What is of interest to me is the analogy that Brené Brown uses in her book, Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution., about, “face down in the arena moments.” That’s what that was. Literally. Of course, it’s an analogy for those inevitable times in life, large or small, when you fall. She takes her reader through what happens or can happen while you are down, when you are rising, and ways to get back up. I was somewhat stunned today to see it all through my own actual fall.
I was running along feeling okay, just vaguely annoyed for unexplored reasons. The sun was shining and I could smell the familiar beloved smell of the nearby lake. My dogs were with me and actually behaving for the moment. The next thing I knew something unexpected caught my toe and I couldn’t catch myself. Initially, when I hit the ground, some of the air was knocked out of me. Along with the stinging in my hands and knees, I felt embarrassed and humiliated inside even though no one else was there! This was something outside of my control to some degree, but part of me attacked myself for not being more careful, for not noticing that log sticking out. I found when I went back that it wasn’t even in the center of the path, where I was sure I had been running. In moments I was berating myself for not seeing it, for not being where I should have, for being so stupid. Then I was denying it. No way that log is what I tripped on because it’s not even in the path where I absolutely was. It had to be something else. I wanted to blame something or someone. There isn’t anything else here. What the hell? As these feelings and thoughts and words steamed through me at top speed, the adrenaline that fueled them also made me angry in general, which didn’t fade right away. In fact, as I continued my run, I found myself getting shaky and a little dizzy – maybe the adrenaline was draining – but still angry. I got angry with Luna for stopping constantly to sniff. I felt my temper rise at the tangle of two goddamn long leashes along with two lanyards with dog collar remotes attached, one bouncing around my neck and the other tucked uncomfortably into my running bra. I felt infuriated that I had to run with these fucking things all tangled up and in my way, that I had to stop constantly and either wait for the dogs to sniff or yank them along.
It didn’t stop there. We were about a quarter mile from home when I decided to rearrange the remotes on the lanyards so that I didn’t have one hitting me in the chest anymore. I found they were wrapped around each other and when I tried, one-handed, to fix that, I got them tangled in the damn leashes. My heart rate increased and I felt like having a crying, swearing temper tantrum. I felt instantly overwhelmed and pissed off. I was pissed at the dogs and at myself.
It hit me then that I was following EXACTLY the pattern that Brené talks about in her book. I was feeling resentful because my expectations were out of line with reality. I didn’t have to do any of what I was doing! I was also reacting with blame and anger because I was feeling vulnerable from my fall. And, I am now realizing, I was judging myself even when no one else even saw it happen. But mostly, it was about my expectations. I was expecting, despite knowing better from vast experience, that I could coordinate a run for my own purposes AND a quality bit of exercise and sniffing for the dogs. These are NOT compatible in my life. They never have been and never will be. It can be one or the other. Both are valuable for different reasons. To expect otherwise is setting myself up for failure. It’s also confusing to the dogs who are used to walks conducted almost entirely for their sakes. If they have always been allowed to sniff, pause, and explore, then why would they suddenly become dutiful running partners? I can’t expect them (or people) to be different than they are. I can’t expect them to meet up with my changing and unreasonable expectations.
That is when I saw it all and I just stopped. I stopped and let go of what I could. I closed my eyes and just breathed to calm myself, in through my nose- hold – out through my mouth – hold. Repeat. I let the dogs just stand where they were and I self-talked. You are okay. You tried to do too much. You are feeling vulnerable. You can’t have a self-satisfying run AND a dog-satisfying outing. Just slow down and figure out the mess here. I opened my eyes and looked up at the swaying green of the trees around me. And I was able to calmly untangle the lanyards and leashes, reorganize myself, and make it work better for the remainder of the distance home. I accepted what it would and would not be.
I suddenly realized, as I stood there breathing today in the middle of the path, that all of that, from the minutes prior to the fall, to the fall itself, to my reaction and the escalating feelings I didn’t acknowledge and recognize at first – that is how I felt as a classroom teacher more and more often. It is the reason why I left. Maybe I could have applied strategies to help myself more often than I was. But I think I really tried. Every day I had decent beginnings, followed by a fall (or multiple falls), with increasing frustration, disappointment, and blame toward students, parents, the system, the district, and, mostly, myself. I tried to stop and untangle everything every night, every weekend. I went back every day and looked to see what tripped me up. Sometimes I thought I had things squared away, but then there was too much again, and my expectations simply did not align with reality.
I am setting those expectations down and walking away from something that was making me unhappy. I don’t see it as a failure or a fall because I did pretty well at it for 17 years. But it was a series of small, face-down moments. Instead, I’m going to do the kind of teaching that I believe in and that can align with my expectations of myself and kids. I wasn’t my best self last year, but I did the best I could with the tools I had. I am trying to believe that almost everyone is doing their best with what they have and know. I have plans. I have ideas. I know what I can do and I am going to take care not to overwhelm myself or expect something that will only end in resentment when it’s not met. I am going to take care of myself so that whatever I do in my life, I can try to do it from a place of relative strength that comes from self awareness, curiosity, open mindedness, non judgement, and truth. I will try to be patient and kind to myself, recognizing my own needs, allowing mistakes and imperfection, and asking those people whom I love and trust to help me when I need it. I expect that I won’t succeed at most of these grand self-care plans all of the time, but I’m going to at least practice. I will do the things that I love and see what follows. I expect I will still experience some face-down moments. I expect I will have stress, disappointments, and logs that I didn’t see in my path. Those are realistic expectations. All I can do is keep being aware, noticing, wondering, writing, and rising over and over again.