Lessons for the middle

My semester ended this past Monday night at about 9:45. The other TA and I were at our professor’s house calibrating final grades for our 70 students over pizza, salad, and cookies, and that’s when we finished.

I returned home in a jubilant state. The concentrated and intense grading marathon we endured from about last Wednesday to Monday night was brutal, but I emerged, as I told my partner, “feeling reborn through fire.” Grading alongside a seasoned professor taught me some valuable lessons about what we’re up to as teachers, and what grades are meant to do for students at the end of the semester.

I felt glad that the process was over but I also felt enlightened and ready to continue honing my craft as a teacher. I remembered that I love teaching. The rhythms of the academic calendar allow me several points throughout the year to stop and reflect, and then get better at each new beginning. This cycle of growth excites me. I feel at home in it.

How often do we recognize that we’re learning? How often are we able to admit, “I didn’t know” or “I don’t know” and say, “thank you for teaching me”? Well, it happened to me on Monday and I was glad.

In the spirit of doing a total 180 from my previous post, I’m reflecting on helpful lessons I’ve learned this year about being in the process, being in the middle: living in transformation.

Lessons for the “vast, hot, unscheduled summer”:

1. It’s okay to change your mind. The more you learn, the more material you have at your disposal for making decisions. I come to conclusions about my partner, my work, and myself all the time that I then change when I have new information. How terribly boring it would be if everything was static! I was telling my peer coach last night I must have gone through about ten different iterations of my explanation for why I’m doing a PhD in English. They have all been true at different times, and on some level, they must all still be true in varying degrees. The old perfectionist in me tends to want to view the world in black and white, and it’s my daily struggle to work against her and live in the gray. Expect change. Expect growth.

2. I’m at my happiest when I’m doing things for the right reasons: for personal growth, for spiritual nourishment, for friendship, for love, for community improvement. Any time I catch myself deciding to do something because I think it will bring me prestige or approval by others, or strictly for money, the process ultimately feels empty and I procrastinate and don’t want to get out of bed in the morning for it. I remember being an idealistic teenager and imagining I’d spend my life in a career that fulfilled me on an emotional and spiritual level, even if that meant I’d never be wealthy. While it’s easy to lapse into envy of those who have the means of consuming everything they want, my daily struggle is to remember what brings me joy, and it’s not status or money.

3. I’m not in any of this alone. I’m surrounded by a vast support network, and all I have to do is reach out to someone and ask for help. My daily struggle is to get out of my own head and connect with others.

4. There is nothing to be gained by being productive all day every day. This, in fact, leads to burnout. When I allow white space on my schedule, when I step away from the laptop and go outside or spend time with loved ones, I feel rested and recharged. These moments of stillness and play are vital to my health and taking them is not shameful. I am also a master of the 20 minute cat nap, and my daily struggle is to remember the importance of rest.

5. I must have confidence in who I am. There’s no use in comparison, and there’s only danger in making assumptions about what other people think of me. I can only do my best each day, and my daily struggle is to feel comfortable with that.

6. We live in a culture of efficiency and immediacy – instant gratification. But everything I love doing takes so much time. The joy of everything I do comes from the long game, and the only way to avoid total breakdown is to recognize the beauty of the journey. I think it was Debbie Millman who said everything worthwhile will take a long time. Again, the perfectionist in me wants everything done, finished, right now. But again, that leads to stasis, which I don’t want. My daily struggle is to keep one eye on the prize and the other on the wonder of every step I take to get there.

7. There is no joy in deprivation, but I used to wear deprivation like a badge of honor. I would deprive myself of my favorite foods, deprive myself of good books because they’re not on the exam list, deprive myself of exercise because there’s no time. This strategy only leads to collapse. What is the point of living if we don’t relish what feeds us? My daily struggle is to allow myself to feel pleasure even when I feel the pressure of deadlines and workload. What if I have something delicious for lunch or have a coffee date with a good friend or read a book just for fun?

8. I think I’ve always been an optimist at heart, but it’s so easy to lapse into cynicism. But that’s the problem. Cynicism is easy. It means when you get disappointed, you can say, “Well, I was expecting that, so good for me.” I can’t live that way. Cynicism is tearing down and optimism is building. I have to believe in the good, I have to see the best in people, and I have to contribute to the good myself. I like to lift people up, and I have to believe that I have a small part to play in making the world a little better, even if it just means holding the door open for someone or responding to a student email late at night even though I’m tired. My daily struggle is remembering to build and to believe.

What are your lessons from the middle? What keeps you going in a long process?

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