"It may be that when we no longer know what to do that we have come to our real work, ...” —Wendell Berry, “The Real Work"
You know what pisses me off about Wendell Berry? It's that he's always right.
I haven’t been sleeping very well for most of the past year. I wake up more often than not somewhere between 2 and 4 a.m. I lie there awake for hours, at the end of my rope, my brain swirling with thoughts, wondering about life.
When I am awake at 3 a.m., the only emotion I ever seem to experience is despair. To be honest, I'm not sure any other emotions are even allowed to be experienced at that hour.
This whole school year has been such a struggle, and the weight of it is bearing down on me. A friend of mine passed away last June, and her death deeply affected me, causing me to re-evaluate a lot of things about who I am and who I want to be. In July, we adopted a dog, turning our daily routines upside-down. I started a three-year teacher-training program with a weeklong program retreat in August and flew to Portland for my friend’s memorial service immediately afterward.
At the end of August, we began what we thought would be a quick process of buying the home we’d been renting. That process took two months and featured setback after setback. I attended my 20th high school reunion in October, and we finalized the purchase of the house while I was on my way to the airport to fly home.
Upon arrival at home that evening, I learned my daughter had a 104-degree fever. She slept, fever coming and going, for nearly two weeks straight, developed pneumonia, and lost a tenth of her body weight. As soon as she became well, my husband also came down with pneumonia. That lasted for three months. I began carrying all the household work and the majority of the parenting duties.
On top of all of those things, I still had the regular daily grind of homeschooling and carting both kids around to their activities and studying for my program. I’m a volunteer coordinator for our local National Novel Writing Month region, so I had workshops and events and writing groups to lead and plan last fall (and write a 50,000-word novel during November). I’ve also had several friendships and relationships that have needed a lot of my time, energy, and attention.
My daughter’s in 8th grade this year. My son is in 5th. We’ve been homeschooling for nine years. MJ’s 6th-grade year was pretty tough for several reasons, but last year was better and went pretty well for both kids, and so I had high expectations for this year. I’ve settled into a philosophy of education, we'd found good rhythms, I figured out a planning system that works for me, and by now, I know how to do what I’m doing. I’d learned how to teach from a state of rest rather than of anxiety.
Between my years of experience, my enthusiasm for the coming year, and the teacher-training program, I thought that this year of all years, I should have it together. I’ve got this for sure by now, right?
Heh. The truth is, I'm barely hanging on here. I’ve spent the better part of this year exhausted in more ways than one.
I had such a good plan. It was (mostly) put together. And things fell apart. Then they fell apart some more. I kept trying to pick up the pieces and say, “OK, adjust. Switch gears. Be flexible.” And I kept getting sideswiped everywhere I turned.
I am trying to be diligent, but when I look back, all I see this whole school year are my failures: All the things I wanted to do that are not done. All the things I wanted to be that I am not. All the books I wanted us to read that are not read, and all the things I had planned for us to study that are left unknown.
And so despair sets in at 3 a.m. Anxiety creeps up and rears her ugly head. I don’t know what to do—about anything—and therefore, I don't know who I am. Everything I think I'm doing well is cast into shadow and doubt. Kinda appropriate for the dark of night, if you ask me.
“…and that when we no longer now which way to go, we have come to our real journey.”
I go to the same homeschool conference every year in March. This year was no different. I went to Greenville, SC, leaving my kids and husband for the fifth time since July. I got to spend lots of time with some dear friends who live across the country. These friends were there for me two years ago when things were hard and I nearly quit homeschooling, and they’ve continued to be there since.
After the conference was over, we went out to dinner in downtown Greenville and decided to take an after-dinner walk down to the river that flows through the city. There is a beautiful park and a bridge that spans the river, and we walked out to the halfway point on the bridge. Megan and I were leaning against the railing, watching the rushing water weave its way over the rocks below, and, keeping my eyes on the water, I tilted my head toward her and said, “You know, I almost didn’t come to the conference. At all.”
She turned to me, in shock. “Why?”
So I told her. The day before I left, I nearly canceled my hotel reservation and bailed. I didn’t want to go because I knew they would want to catch up and that they would ask how things were going this year. And because I know myself: I'd tell my friends that—yet again—I'm struggling, and I didn’t want to be. For once, I didn't want to talk about it. I’ve been transparent with people about how hard it’s been for my family to be sick, but I haven’t really talked much about how I've spent the better part of the past year feeling like an absolute failure.
I want to finally have it together. Not just look like I do, but actually have it together. Is that so much to ask? It's not that I didn't think my friends would extend me love, grace, compassion, and kindness—I knew they would. It's just that I didn't want to be in a position to need it.
And ... there it is.
That’s the thing, right? All this lying awake at night not knowing what to do about anything in my life has revealed the real work. It’s not that I need to be more diligent or work harder or do better—and, yes, I should be doing all of those things—it’s that I’ve got this pride that I didn’t realize was there. I did not see that coming. I mistook it for other things, and I’m still figuring out what those things are. I don’t have lots of answers yet.
“The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
So I’m learning to dismantle my pride, one day at a time. I still aim to be diligent and work hard and do better. I’m still confident in my skills and experience and planning. I’m secure in my family and relationships and community. But there are parts of me that need to be killed and die. There’s dross that needs a flame lit to it and be burned away. I need to wake up daily and repent.
There’s grace to be had, and whether I like it or not, I’m in desperate need of it.