3 Week Check In: Delights, Lessons, and an Invitation

I am three weeks into (c)leave. So far, I am succeeding at using delight to self-medicate. Really, delight is a good treatment option because it doesn’t have any side effects, unlike every other medicine I’ve been on in the last 6 months. Good news: I’m down to one medication these days!

Delights

Delight abounds when your full time job is to notice it and seek it out. Here are five high(de)lights:

  • On Wednesday around 1 PM, a drag queen looked me straight in the eye over a clothing rack at a thrift store and said, “Girl, no one in this world should have to go without clothes. And we work so hard for them. My hand hurts just from moving these hangers.”
  • Beth Barr’s book The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth was poignant, disruptive, and scholarly. I finished listening to it this week. The way she deconstructs (and calls out) the contemporary evangelical Christian belief that patriarchy is God’s design with rigorous historical research is for sure a delight.
  • So much art: We took the kids to see the Matisse show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I saw Hiroshima’s Great Wave of Kanagawa and met contemporary artist Helen Zughaib at the Susquehanna Museum of Art. This week I got to see the Carnegie International. Dia al-Azzawi’s Ruins of Two Cities: Mosul and Aleppo (this post’s header image) did me in at the beginning; I just sat there on the floor staring at it. To have that type of unhurried alone time in a museum is a gift.
  • One of my daughters recently declined looking through a book about changing bodies, stating, “Mom, you’ve already answered all my questions about penises.”
  • Curio’s Sketchbook Club. Making art with other folks – even if they are strangers – has really slowed me down in good ways. I love showing up to a new still life and thinking, “well, shoot” and giving it a go anyway. I leave with a drawing and a bit of reassurance I am not a fraud.
    • Delight 5b: this list isn’t in parallel structure and I don’t care!

Lessons

I’ve learned that chasing delight is also kinda expensive. I realized that it was worth it to invest in reciprocal memberships, passes, or subscriptions. Here are the delight investments I made up front:

  • I bought the Keystone Philadelphia Museum of Art Membership. This was not cheap ($250). But, it gets me and three other adults plus kids into major museums across the country, goes to support a museum I love, and will pay for itself this year. It would have cost my family ~$60 for admission and parking to the Matisse show on its own. I used the reciprocal membership to get into the Carnegie International this week.
  • I bought a ten ride Amtrak pass. This will get me to and from Philadelphia museum for cheaper (~$15 a ride) than I can get individual tickets, and it’s cheaper than driving and paying the tolls if I’m traveling solo.
  • I bought a family membership to a local museum (The Susquehanna Museum of Art) for $125. The museum is a member of the North American Reciprocal Museum Association and gives me access to 1,000 additional museums (not all art). The extensive list of all of the museums you can access is available on the NARM website.
  • For Christmas, we received a gift card to Longwood Gardens. Longwood allows you to apply gift cards to membership, so I paid $45 out of pocket for an annual membership that allows me and one guest into the gardens all year and a few other benefits.

Yes, this cost me almost $600 in memberships, which I recognize isn’t nothing. There are some important unadvertised benefits of this:

  • I can visit places without continued cost or concern about how long I should stay to make it “worth it.”
  • I can share the delight. I can take family or friends along with me to these places and their cost is nothing or very minimal. I love to travel by myself but sometimes company is nice too 🙂 In this case, I carry the title delight usher, and here is my DU headshot taken by my friend Kelly on our recent trip to Longwood Gardens. Leslie Gates, Ph.D., DU.
  • I can stack delights. For instance, I’m going to NYC at the end of the month to hear a concert and between my two reciprocal museum memberships have free access to about 25 museums in NYC. So, I’ll be going to the met for the first time since 1999!
  • I feel obligated to use the benefits. It’s that simple. If I’ve paid to go, I am more likely to go than to not.

The Invitation

Having collected and posted delights for days on end, I realize that there are three themes to my delights: the arts, nature, and relationships. I love this quote:

One of the delights of life is eating with friends; second to that is talking about eating. And, for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.

Laurie Colwin

I wonder if you’ve ever thought about what brings you joy and delight, and whether you’ve thought about stacking them for a double whammy. Try it and let me know what happens. I’ll write more about double whammy delights soon.

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I am on (c)leave

I was awarded a sabbatical from my institution for the Spring 2023 semester. In late December, I requested and was granted a a medical leave for that same semester. As a result, I turned down the sabbatical. This was obviously not my original plan. As this news has spread, lots of folks have reached out because they care about me and were genuinely concerned. The first student who found out asked me with wide eyes if I was dying.

The good news is I don’t have a condition that is life threatening – other than being human – and I’m not planning to die this semester, which I hope is okay with all of you. Since I’m not planning to die soon, I thought I’d write a bit about this choice I made. I once took a workshop with Selena Carrera, who said, “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will, and you don’t know how they will edit it.” So, here is the story, according to me, in general enough terms I am willing to publish them online.

Cleave is a word with two homographs, each with a distinct origin. Cleave means to adhere firmly and loyally and to divide or split. My medical leave is actually me cleaving, in both of these ways.

Cleave: to divide or split

In July of 2022, I left a graduate class I was teaching to take the only available appointment time my doctor had that day. I was in so much pain and wasn’t sleeping. I have some chronic issue with my stomach that had last flared up in 2019. This time, it was more severe, and the flare up lasted months. I taught the fall semester like nothing was wrong, and I could do that because I didn’t look sick. The doctors (I now had a team!) ordered many tests and procedures, but I have small kids, was working full time, hosting the state art education conference, and teaching an extra class. Getting to the doctor, the pharmacy, and the specialist was really hard. I turned down the appointments they offered because it was Evelyn’s birthday, because it was the first day of the state conference, and because there is no great short term plan to have someone cover your classes when you’re the only art education professor at the university where you work.

If I wanted to attend to this issue and stop testing my resolve to love baked potatoes for another day, I had to divide or split from some of the responsibilities that were keeping me from doing so.

Cleave: to adhere firmly and loyally

The intensity of the fall semester and my health issues was magnified by what I now understand to be layers of grief.

Layer – I had COVID in February of 2021 and two years later, my sense of smell and taste still isn’t 100%. (Please don’t send me advice or studies about this – my own research supplemented by my children’s mounting “expertise” from YouTube influencers has been plenty sufficient in making me feel worse about this and not better).

Layer – In addition to not being able to taste/smell everything, my stomach issues meant there were many foods I couldn’t eat. I have a few friends who saw me eat an unreasonable amount of caesar salads because it was the only safe bet on the menu for months. Not only was I sad about the sudden influx of dietary limitations, I started to avoid some social interactions because looking at a menu and choosing the caesar salad again resulted in me tearing up more than once. The restricted diet or inevitable pain was a loss over and over, often in situations where I was supposed to be happy and enjoying myself.

Layer – There was meaningful work I loved that I lost the opportunity to do this year. On top of mourning the biggest professional loss I have experienced, I found out that folks were being dishonest about me and that work. The devastation, grief, and eroded trust has been profound and sticks around like a thick fog.

I don’t know at what point the layering of these things became too much, but it became too much. There were days I would drive my car to work and sit in the parking lot and cry. There were many self-imposed time outs in restaurant bathrooms to breathe, or to cry, or to pray. Every time I had more blood drawn, I wondered if they could detect the decreasing levels of joy in each subsequent vial. Would the hematologist call to tell me I might be depressed? Wouldn’t that be something? I mean, it was that obvious.

I began to realize that I had to adhere firmly and loyally…to myself…in ways that I had not, ever. I had to find health in more ways that one, and the medical leave became as important for healing my (metaphorical) heart as it was for my stomach.

Cleaving

So, I’m cleaving. I’m breaking up with work for an extended time in order to be more present with myself so I can heal. Those of you who know me and my work know this was not an easy decision and we all know this break will be as hard as it is good for me. I apologize ahead of time for what you will likely see in the coming months on my social media: sheer indulgence in the form of concerts, museums, gardens, hiking, time with friends, making art, and the like. I’ll try to keep it under control, but as I’ve already experienced, when you re-discover delight, it’s hard to keep that quiet.

2022 Happies and Crappies

I recently listened to Kate Bowler’s podcast in which she and Kelly Corrigan debriefed 2022 using the framework “Happies and Crappies.” While I have done some extensive reflection on the year using Emily P. Freeman’s 10 Questions for Reflection and Discernment, I’ll frame this public reflection using Kate and Kelly’s simple “Happies and Crappies” framework. As a bonus, I’ll end with a short exercise I am borrowing from Emily. 🙂

Happies

I don’t think I need to write much about the happies, so I’ll present them as captions to these photos from the year. Celebrate with me that there were some really sweet moments this year.

Crappies

There are lots of things that didn’t go so well this year. The edited list of things that I am willing to tell strangers on the internet is:

  1. Our family really struggles to eat dinner together regularly, for a host of reasons including competing schedules, a variety of food preferences/needs, and our general lack of commitment to doing so. This drives me nuts and I want us to do this more often in 2023. (I know that’s not a SMART goal; don’t @ me, educator friends).
  2. I really don’t like multi-modal meetings. I don’t like attending them and I really don’t like leading them.
  3. This year I’ve faced some significant health challenges that were a major contributing factor to me needing to take my mental health more seriously. I’m thankful for good insurance, faithful friends, and family who stepped in when it was just too much.
  4. The confluence of puberty and a neurodivergent child made parenting more challenging than ever this year. We’re gathering some new supports and reaffirming our desire to love each other well in 2023.

Emily Freeman suggests that after you reflect and before you move into a new season, you name four things. I’ve named them and illustrated them because I am an insecure overachiever (thanks to Adam Grant for that phrase).

A progress I’m celebrating: In my last post, I talked about how hard it is to answer the question “What do I want?” or “What do I need?” I have made quite a bit of progress on that this year. I’m taking the time to really sit with the truths of who I am, how I’d like grow, and what I might need to move forward.

A pivotal decision I’ve made: Based on the progress I just mentioned, I decided to take an extended medical leave for the Spring 2023 semester. I have never had 15 weeks disengaged from work. This is already pivotal in some ways, but I’m sure throughout that time it will be pivotal in ways I did not anticipate.

A question I’m still carrying: How do I let things go or put things down when I am overwhelmed, frustrated, and/or outraged at something related to work?

What I want most: To know in my mind and heart that my worth as a person is not defined by my productivity or the way I care for others. In general, these are some of my superpowers but I need to disconnect them from how I feel about myself.

Wishing you a 2023 in which you embrace both the happies and the crappies, surrounded by an inner circle of folks who love you through it all.

All I Want for Christmas is…

This woman in mom jeans sitting on Santa’s lap is one of my favorite instagram posts of all time. I imagine her exasperated confession is not embarrassment or shame at her lack of an answer; it’s because she is overwhelmed with the thought of having one more thing to consider in this season.

A 40-ish year old’s attempt to answer this question for herself should come without consideration of any constraints. Dream big, heart! To complete the conceptual exercise this post invites, I channeled my children’s unrelenting hopefulness and imaginary powers that lead them to believe they might find iPhone 14s under our Christmas tree despite the fact they have not demonstrated the ability to put two socks in a hamper on a regular basis.

I write today with the news that I have come up with an answer to Santa’s* question! What do I want?

Each Wednesday morning, trash cans and recycle bins line my street. Usually by the time we finish breakfast, the garbage and recycle trucks have taken the trash away, and the empty receptacles are ready to be returned to our garage until the following week.

What do I want? A garbage truck that comes to pick up emotional garbage. The folks who come to collect my emotional garbage would be wearing t-shirts that said things like “Good vibes only is a lie” and “Vulnerability is my jam.” They would take turns driving and overseeing the large arm-like extension from the truck that would suck the garbage right off my curb and into the truck. One of them would put a dog treat in my mailbox and wave to Wilbur in the window.

When I got home from work on Wednesday, the emotional garbage wouldn’t be on the curb. That lie I believed that was based in my own insecurity and no part of reality? Gone. That thing I said but didn’t mean and apologized for but still haunts me? Also gone. All that’s left behind is a treat for my dog, and me, feeling free.

*Santa is actually my therapist.

Notified

I get a notification on my laptop you are writing in our shared note.

I can see you typing in real time.

Every so often, you delete a word

                        Then the cursor

            moves backwards

                        then forward again,

                                    not because you were unsure of

                                    what you wanted to say,

                                    but because a new word says it

                                    with more precision. 

Like a laser, trying to cauterize the heart using words 

to stop the bleeding, 

to start the healing.

             There is so much to heal;

             there is so much to write.

Welcome, November

The vibrant leaves fall.
In just a few days, they will be an indistinguishable brown
And so dry
That their veins become like bones.

When the neighborhood kids
Ride their bikes through the piles
of once-vibrant leaves,
I hear the crunching of bones
As the kids scream for joy.

Bandaids and Joy

When we get a minor cut, we might apply some antibiotic ointment and put on a bandaid. We care for the wound by replacing the band aid and checking for infection. Those are reasonable actions that help us heal. Once the cut heals, it’s reasonable to take off the band aid.

Have you ever been tempted to leave the band aid on once the cut fully heals? No? I mean, the band aid could serve as a layer of protection just in case you cut yourself in that spot again, right? So why not? I guess we only proactively guard ourselves with things like helmets, seat belts, knee pads, or safety gloves when we feel like the risk of getting hurt meets a certain threshold. In other words, we armor up when we feel vulnerable (thanks Brené).

If I continued to wear bandaids in every place I had ever cut myself, not only would I look atrocious, it would affect the sensitivity of what I could feel. Every one of my fingers would be wrapped. Playing piano would be difficult, and petting a dog wouldn’t feel the same. Yes, it would be safer, but at some point, muted joy is its own danger.

Productivity storm

A few weeks ago I left a large navy blue umbrella in the back of a lecture hall on campus. When I realized it, I decided not to go back and get it. I didn’t have much time, had other umbrellas, and figured a soaking wet undergraduate had already accepted the abandoned umbrella as a sign of God’s provision.

Today I arrived at work with two large umbrellas in the trunk of my car. When I realized I might need one, I decided not to go back for it. I didn’t have much time, had a rain coat, and figured being soaking wet might be something I was willing to accept today. And isn’t rain also God’s provision?

I threw my hood over my head and slopped across the parking lot and into my office. What will I accomplish if an umbrella already felt like too much work?

A love letter to a baked potato

Dear Spud,

I am not sure if I first loved you, or you first loved me, but it doesn’t matter now. Why we fell in love is so far from the reasons we are still in love. Your perfectly baked, sea salt skin hasn’t ceased to be a delight, but it just matters far less now. What matters now is that I am convinced you are for me and not against me.

Never ever, not once, have you upset my fussy and increasingly unpredictable gastrointestinal system. You stand out among all foods as my stalwart food companion. I love you, Spud, and I’m sorry I have often taken your consistency for granted so many times in my 41 years.

We have eaten so many meals together and I never tire of your company. I hope we have many more meals together, although in time, I hope you start to bring some friends to dinner. I’m starting to think that you might be getting sick of me. Hearing me talk about all the foods I wish I were eating in addition to you cannot be easy. You’ve stuck with me like no other.

On Sundays, when I wrap you in your foil blanket, you remind me to tuck in the edges, just like you like it. I put you in the oven, but I don’t make you go alone. Today you were in such good company there was steam and hissing and much rejoicing among all of you. When you were finished baking, the whole house smelled like love.

xo,

Leslie

Care and Decision Making for Teachers: A Fledgling Theory

My colleague Ollie Dreon recently blogged about care as teachers’ superpower and kryptonite. The two of us work together often, and one theme in our conversations over the years has been how and to what degree we show care for our students and ourselves in complicated and nuanced teaching situations. His post got me thinking about care again, and about a fledgling theory I have, and I’d love your feedback on it.*

Striking a healthy balance between caring for students and caring for ourselves as teachers can be a real struggle, especially for those of us who view teaching primarily as a relational activity. I am going to use “Will I accept late work?” as an illustration of a teaching decision I need to make while considering how to care for students and myself. But first, the fledgling theory in Venn diagram form.

I have found an active tension among three factors when I need to make a decision: my philosophy of teaching and learning, my responsibility to prepare my students to meet competencies and expectations of the profession they are about to enter, and my own well-being. I usually arrive at my best decisions about whether and how to care for my students and me when I consider each of these in relationship to one another.

Will I accept late work? Let me consider this through each of the three factors.

Philosophy of Teaching and Learning: Yes, I will accept late work, because I know that learning doesn’t happen according to a timetable and due dates are largely arbitrary in a college setting. I know that some students want to sit with ideas longer before responding, writing the paper, or creating the artwork. Some ideas have to gestate. I also know students encounter real life setbacks and emergencies that may be legitimate excuses for late work and I want to model the ethic of care Ollie described in his post.

Preparation for the Profession: No, I will not accept late work, because my students’ ability to meet deadlines will matter when they are teachers. I want to prepare them by being transparent and clear about professional expectations of our field. While some deadlines in their work will be flexible, a failure to complete the state-mandated professional development hours by the deadline will result in them losing their teaching license. Outside of an emergency situation, it isn’t acceptable to show up to a parent/teacher conference having done no preparation, or to arrive late for an art show opening you are hosting that 300 guests have shown up to see.

My Well-Being: I can accept late work if I will have time to give feedback on the work later than when I planned to do so. Otherwise, the student’s late work might mean me staying up later than I should, or spending more time on my computer instead of with my family in the evening. If giving the student an extension requires me to renegotiate my own time/boundaries, I should not accept the work.

You can see the tension, yes? I have run many teaching decisions through these three factors. It’s not a perfect theory, and the decisions that have resulted aren’t perfect either. What this theory does is force me to articulate what caring for myself looks like in each situation, and to situate it into the decision making process. This theory also illustrates the constant negotiations teachers make, and why it’s so easy for teachers to take caring for themselves out of the equation just to make the decision simpler. (I’m guilty of that, too).

Teachers make so many decisions, and each of our factors are different. Today I hope we (teachers) give ourselves grace for all of the lackluster decisions we’ve made, and find a centeredness and courage to keep our well being as a non-negotiable factor in the decisions we make in the days to come.

*I once thought I’d submit these ideas, contextualized by a bunch of other theories, to a more scholarly outlet than my blog. But I’m a full professor now, and this blog comes without me needing to respond to the infamous Reviewer 2 who will tell me I didn’t cite Deluze and Guattari (or themselves) enough. Plus, how I make scholarly decisions as a full professor is something I haven’t mapped out in a neat Venn diagram. So have at it, internet reviewers/friends! I need your feedback.