Thursday, May 18, 2017

I Have Anxiety, And The Death Of My Inner Critic

Mental Health Awareness Week was a little while ago, and since then I've been sitting on some thoughts.  I wasn't ready to share then, but I want to share now.  Here's why I want to share:

  • It seems to me that the culture I live in has a hard time dealing healthfully with negative emotion.  We avoid it or we fix it, both in ourselves or in others.  This is incredibly frustrating to me, and I know that I'm not alone.  I'm sharing in hopes that this can be my small contribution to fostering awareness and understanding.
  • I believe that what I have to share may resonate with a few people and they will feel encouraged by reading.

So here it is, a series of anecdotes where I reflect on what I've been learning about myself and my anxiety lately. Settle in with some popcorn, this one's long. ;)

---

I struggle with anxiety.  In daily life what this often means for me is that it takes longer for me to feel better after having an uncomfortable emotion or thought.  My thoughts want to spiral into negativity.  But they are also instrumental to having healthy responses to uncomfortable emotions.  They can act like a lifeboat to help me ride the wave of emotions, or they can be like the squirmy, writhing sea plants that pull me under the waters and keep me stuck in the wave for way longer than I need to be.

---

A part of me is gently pushing up against the tightness in my chest, holding me here, urging me gently to speak.  If my anxiety were a physical thing, it would be a wall that has formed around my heart.  On that wall is scribbled in ugly, broad strokes:  "Stop talking.  Stop feeling. Be better."  Guards pace back and forth on that wall watching, waiting to put my heart back in its place when its strong beating bumps against the barrier.  They sting me with arrows when I talk.  They bash me down when I feel, turning sadness into anger and guilt into despair.  When I strive, they remind me of what I can't do.  They remind me of who I am not.

Waves of sadness churn up and break against the wall.

I long to be free.

---

I'm working through an online class [link] on positive thinking and processing through the concept of reframing thoughts.  Something is hooking me emotionally about this.  I feel like my inner critic is telling me, "You don't need to reframe your thoughts.  You talk too much.  You just need to stop feeling bad and focus on the positive."  

If I listen too much to that guy's half-truths, he digs in deeper: "You are so overwhelming.  What a drag.  No one wants to listen to you."  It spirals from there.  These thoughts can trigger depression and increased anxiety as I analyze every little thing, down to this aggravating belief that for some reason is so hard to shake:  "You are so unlikable."  It digs down deeper, and an emptiness is revealed:  "It is not okay if others don't like me.  I am only okay if I am likable." 

---

I see myself in the past: A bulldozer.  I listened to others only to plan the next thing that I would say.  I was loud, opinionated.  I still see this threatening conversations with loved ones every once in awhile, although I believe I have gotten better.

I'm stopping to take stock of what is peeking through the pressed down soil.  As I take stock of my feelings I realize that when I am pressed down, I often see red and explode from the dirt like I'm rising from the dead.  Words, excuses, feelings can pour out of me.  Why am I fighting? Perhaps we each simply long to be heard, and we don't know how to express this but to fight about it.  Rather than sending my own bulldozer back over, I can let the tiny green sapling lift its small leaf at the sun that's shining on the dirt pressed down in the bulldozer's wake.  It's less tempting to bulldoze over that planted hope than the thorny bushes of my anger rising fervently from the wreckage, isn't it? 

---

In my first teaching job, I had a conflict with my department head because, she would tell me, whenever she explained a problem that she saw in my teaching, I would talk around that problem - rationalize it, make excuses, etc.  I remember standing in front of her desk in the small office right around the corner from the in-school suspension room with teary eyes, fighting back that bubble of anxiety and confusion as I listened to her confront me about her concerns with my teaching.  "You keep making the same mistakes," she told me.  No matter how many times she told me, I kept making them.  I so desperately wanted to change and to be a better teacher.  Why wasn't I getting better?  

Looking back, I can see why she thought that I was unwilling to grow. If I could go back and redo those conversations now, I would talk less, listen more, and think more before the few words I did decide to speak.

I was accused by this boss of making excuses.  I realize now that she was right. But I'm only now realizing that there is a difference between rationalization and reframing (shifting to a true, but more positive perspective). One of them would have helped my own negative thoughts at the time, but the other just kept me in denial.

Rationalization is an unhealthy response to true guilt. It means not taking responsibility for what I did wrong. Reframing on the other hand is a way to interact with negative thoughts that are unproductive. This requires, and in fact makes it easier, taking responsibility where I need to so that I can move forward.

---

As teenager I became aware that the path I was walking down was not one of well-balanced, healthy emotions.  Reflecting on my childhood I had very high highs and very low lows and I would say, "Maybe I'm bipolar."  As an adult, I was told by one psychiatrist that I had generalized anxiety disorder, by a family doctor that I had OCD and anxiety, and by a different psychiatrist that I had something that was probably like OCD or anxiety (I don't really remember, it was quite vague).  To this day my own self-diagnosis varies by the day.

I hate when other people label me.

---

All I saw was blackness.  Hours of blackness as I sobbed on my bed, sobs that tore the energy out of me for days.  I felt alone, powerless, misunderstood, guilty, still angry.  I had seen red, then I saw black, then I saw red again as I realized I was having a miscarriage a few days later.  On New Year's Day, of all things.  I blamed myself and my big emotions for causing the miscarriage.  I also fostered resentment towards my loved ones by blaming them.

If what I needed to do to be okay was to stop having deep emotions, then my life seemed pretty hopeless.

---

The hard part of being me is that sometimes tiny things can have a huge impact.

"Nice way to say that  you overreact," Lumpy says.  Lumpy's my Inner Critic.  I just decided to call him that.  His name's Lumpy because he makes me feel like all I am is a mess of lumpy knots.

Lumpy's kind of a jerk, but there's a part of him that means well.

"Lumpy.  Yeah.  Sometimes I do," I admit curtly.  "But it's okay to have big emotions, and I'm learning how to handle them better."  I stare him down and he slinks back into the shadows.  

---

My anxiety is somewhat social, but not in the typical way that you'd imagine.  I seek out social time rather than avoid it most of the time, but if an uncomfortable social interaction happens, then my anxiety can take hold of me for a long time at home, once I'm alone.  And that leaves me feeling ... empty, unsatisfied, and lonely.

"You are so embarrassing," Lumpy likes to remind me after these uncomfortable situations.  "No one really likes you.  They are just pretending."  If Lumpy doesn't have success controlling what I think about how others see me, he goes for manipulating how I see myself.  "You're a fake," he'll hiss.  "You're really not good at anything, and you're just tricking people into thinking that you're good at things like teaching or writing or being a mom."

Wow, Lumpy, way to go for the gut.

So one day when I was feeling particularly down and didn't see any helpful hands reaching into my pit to lift me out, I reached out to a good friend and shared some of the things that Lumpy's been telling me.  She follows up with some really good advice, but I don't hear it right away because her first words to me are, "It sounds like you are seeking fulfillment in people, not in Jesus."

Lumpy has a FIT.  He's jumping up at down waving his arms in the air and screaming in my ear, "SEE!  I've been telling this to you for YEARS!  You are such a bad Christian.  You love people more than God.  Man, you really gotta get it together."

I feel like I've been punched in the gut as Lumpy's tirade rains down on me as I clutch the phone and fix my steely gaze at the wall.

---

A voice from my past.  There is a firmness to it.  A somehow pleasing and yet uncomfortable calmness.  And perhaps, a sigh of resignation.  "An apology doesn't mean anything if you keep doing the thing that you said you were sorry for," it says.

---

Lumpy is quiet sometimes.  In moments of true guilt, where I recognize that I've done something wrong, and either can't or don't want to fix it, he'll let my guilt slip into despair.  He likes despair because it keeps me from taking responsibility for my actions and making positive change.

In moments of selfish anger he'll let me simmer and bubble.  The loved ones in front of me will fade from my sight as my view narrows to the tiny thing I want to control or change about them.  I am asking Jesus to widen my view.

Lumpy will also take true sadness or anger and twist them.  True sadness tells me that I've lost something.  True anger tells me that something is wrong, that a boundary has been violated.  Sadness can lead me to seek comfort from friends or family, and anger can lead me to be protective.  But Lumpy is the little general that leads all the soldiers that pace back and forth on the wall of anxiety that blocks my heart in.  Stop feeling, they yell.  

Lumpy wants me to cook with anger, and then shrivel with despair.  He would have me not recognize the information that my emotions are giving me.  He would have me hide, distract, even fix.  When I succumb to believing that my emotions are bad, Lumpy wins.

---

I hear my inner critic come out with my kids and I feel scared.  The worst that I feel is when my three year old is crying and I can't figure what is upsetting him.  I try and I try to figure out what is wrong. I try to guess what he is saying, but he's crying so hard that I can't understand him, and he yells "No!" at me and cries harder.  

The red starts to seep out of me.  I'm trying so hard, and there are other things I'd rather be doing right now, and why can't you just listen.  My worst self comes out.  

"STOP CRYING!"

Maybe the worst thing that I've ever said, because it's accompanied by this steely gaze that reduces my child to an obnoxious object, and a tone that's dripping with irritation.  A look and a tone that are all coalescing into what could one day be my child's own inner critic:  "You are such a crybaby.  You need to stop.  You need to be better. Stop feeling.  You'll never be good enough.  You'll never be good enough for me."  I look away from my child.  I want to withhold my affection until he behaves better.  I want to hide from my own shame.  I am dirty on the inside, but I am so mad that I don't care.

And then when his tone turns cheery as only a child's can so soon after such an awful parental display, but his eyes are still red from crying, I wonder, how much time do I have to fix this before he comes to believe that he's only worthy in my eyes when he is quiet, calm and manageable?

---

If I were a plant, my thick trunk would have a whole mess of thorny vines growing from it, that get tangled with other trees so much so that you can't tell where one begins and another ends.  I was and to a large degree still am so emotionally reliant on what others think of me.  Sometimes I feel like I'm in a season of systematically de-barbing my vines from others.  Letting go of needing to be likable and lovable in others' eyes ... wow, what a challenge.  It's hard.  And I miss my vines, even as I'm starting to taste little bits of freedom as I see what's free to grow when they are all cleared.

---

I enjoy attending Spanish-speaking church services because they resonate with me emotionally in a way that English-speaking services usually don't.  It's as if the people there are more comfortable with emotion. The last time I visited a particular one, the pastor read Luke 17:1-6 and spoke on living a life of faith.  The message sunk into my skin and wrapped around my bones.  A life of faith is a life of forgiveness, he said.  They passed out a red paper and a blue paper.  On the red paper we were to write down the name of someone we needed to forgive, and on the blue paper, someone of whom we needed to ask forgiveness.  

The one to forgive was obvious for me.  I scribbled the name and cried and dropped it in the basket at the foot of the cross.  

I struggled over the one of whom to ask forgiveness, because he's only three and he can't understand my request.  The voice from my past echoes.  "Why do you keep saying you're sorry, but then do the thing you said you were sorry for?"  My son understands my actions more than my words.  My heart speaks to him through my tone, my facial expression.  What kind of heart am I showing him?  I write his name on the blue paper.  I want to live a life of forgiveness.

For his sake, and admittedly a little bit for my sake too, I hope that he will grow into an adult that is quick to forgive.  But mostly for his sake.

---

Someone recently shared a quote with me that resonated:  "You never get ahead by looking at the rear-view mirror of your life."  I like that.  It's a reminder to me to keep my eyes focused on the road ahead.  And yet, the rear-view mirror does serve a purpose.  It gives you a view of the traffic that's around you so you can be safe.  How can I know where I'm going unless I know where I've been?

---

In the wake of these emotions,  I'm aware of something new.  An emptiness.  Not a blackness like despair.  Not heated air in the space where an angry outburst left its mark.  Just ... an emptiness.  Something that in the past would have been filled up with unhealthy expressions of my emotion - agitation, jumpiness, words, actions, snacking, crying, etc. 

Lumpy's ghost.

In the quiet, I sit and I feel the sadness.  I'm sad for who I could have been if I learned to manage my anxiety earlier in life.  And yet, God is using me.  I may not see how, but I know it is true because I have faith.

I can choose to be present or productive, but not both.

I can choose to be present or productive, but not both. If I want to be productive, I must choose to be present.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Thoughts on teaching things that are applicable and comprehensible

Just a quick thought I wanted to write down.  After the last entry, I've been thinking a lot about the weather and being outside.  So when I was driving shortly after that and the sky started to change and it was clear that it was about to rain, this is the thought that occurred to me:  It doesn't matter that my son knows why it's going to rain, scientifically.  It just matters that he knows what to do when it DOES rain.

That thought came up after I found myself explaining to my son about atmospheric pressure.  2 things:  1) he doesn't really need to know that, and 2) I don't even know what I'm talking about when it comes to atmospheric pressure, ha!  But ... really?  In my defense, I was just talking.  And some day maybe it will be important for him to know about that stuff.  But right now...  what's most helpful for a toddler to learn about the rain?  That it gets him wet.  That if he stays wet he can get cold and sick.  That when it rains hard we come inside.  That playing in the rain is fun, but we have to dry off afterwards.  That rain is good because it makes the plants grow.  There's so much more to know about rain, scientifically, but ... he doesn't need to know it, and most of it he probably won't ever have to know.

That's not to say that if he wants to know, that I won't try to teach him or encourage him by finding somewhere that he can learn about it.  But ultimately, if I get distracted trying to teach things that aren't APPLICABLE to his life, or COMPREHENSIBLE to where he is at developmentally, then he won't learn the things - and even if he does, they won't mean a thing to him.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

God spoke to me today


My season right now is both rich and dry.  Not barren.  It’s full of life.  Dry, because life has its thorns and they scratch and wound, heal over, and are sometimes opened again.  Dry like sandpaper, both gentle and rough at the same time, depending on how hard you rub.

I like to run.  Sometimes I dream of running.  I’m running so fast, faster than I’ve ever run before.  I’m almost crying because of the joy of it.  I can’t believe my own power.  It’s everything that I’ve ever thought I would be able to do, but didn’t always have hope that I would be able to do it.

This morning I felt good, but tense.  I sat on the couch with my toddler in my lap and a heavy blanket over the two of us, cuddling while the youngest took a nap.  It was one of the rare moments where I didn’t feel touched out, where I was glad to be able to offer the affection that I know he needs, instead of trying to muster up the energy and motivation to let somebody else touch me when I just wanted my body to myself.  I am with you, in these moments, if you only lookNo moment is too small for me.  I love you like this.  He feels good, and you feel good to help him feel good.  I feel good when you let me in.

Later as I’m working on something, and my toddler is playing on his own, he comes up and asks for a hug again.  And another one.  And another one.  And I feel the itch creeping up.  The sandpaper presses down a little harder.  Breathe.  With a very gentle hand on my shoulder, God pushes my body into that hug.  He redirects my attention away from the task I’m working on.  Shift.  God speaks to me in images.  In my mind I see the red jogging stroller that my father in law found for us at a garage sale. It’s an image calling for an action, and so we get ready and go outside. 

(As I write at the kitchen table, the rice is boiling.  Play with your happy infant.  I lower the heat and I’m thoughtful. ... I watch my baby play with his colorful wheel.  I watch it fall.  "You dropped your wheel!"  I pick it up and watch him play by himself, intent, and I wonder whether I will finish this story before my kids need me again. ... We eat lunch.  Yummy rice and meat.  I talk about the flavors.  I like the ginger, I like the sweetness.  The grapefruit is cold and it is sour.  David doesn’t want to try it.  “Fría,” he says when I speak a little to him in Spanish. ... David loves to put his hand on my face.  He does this now and I smile at how gentle he is.  He does it again and makes me laugh.  Then I say with a chuckle, “I normally don’t like this so I shouldn’t encourage you to do it.”  “I want hand in my face,” he says, and pulls my hand to him.  I oblige and then ruffle his hair.  A couple of more “hand in my faces” later, he gives me permission to come back to the computer.  “Hand on the computer,” he says.  I read aloud what I am writing to him.  “More words,” he says.  I like how similar he is to me.)

It's time to run, and I strap my kids into the stroller.  I walk to warm-up, run for a minute, walk again.  These are my runs nowadays.  I injured my right-side groin muscles a few months ago, and I’m going slow so I don’t aggravate the injury that I’ve waited not quite patiently for it to heal.  I pay attention to my body, thinking about the area where the injury is.  I feel the tenderness in other parts of my legs, and it feels good, and I know I can run through that.  I feel my lungs expanding and contracting.  I concentrate on my breathing.  This feels good.  I listen to the thunder.  When we first left the house, I tried to pull up the radar app on my smartphone to see whether it was going to rain.  It wouldn’t load, so I decided that I would just run anyway and we would see what happens.

I’m very close to the half-way point of my run.  All of a sudden I get the sense that it’s about to rain.  I wonder: How do I know that it’s going to rain?  Normally it sneaks up on me more.  God speaks to me in a feeling.  Breathe.  It’s as if my eyes weren’t open until this point, and I look around in wonder.  The air closed in on me all of a sudden and with that cold, breezy pressure I felt as if I myself was opening up.  To my left I hear the splashing of the water treatment plant, but I know that my sense is not from that water so nearby.  It’s going to rain.  If you don’t turn around, you’re going to get caught in the rain.  I look at my children and don’t want them to get rained on, but I know that a little bit wouldn’t hurt.  And yet, something tells me it’ll be more than a little bit, so after a few seconds of enjoying this feeling of being open and breathing so deeply, I turn around.

We listened to the thunder as we ran and rolled.  It didn’t seem too much closer together than it was last time, but I could feel the change in the air still.  Ten minutes more and we’re almost home.  I ran hard, careful to listen to my healing and challenged muscles.  I ran up the hill slowly pushing the heavy stroller.  Really, it was more of a bouncing walk.  I could tell that the pressure was in my lungs and calves, and not in my groin.  That is how I knew that the tenderness I felt was safe to run through.  Breathing hard at the top.  Have to walk it off.  Head to the garage.

It’s going to rain soon.

I talk to myself and I wonder, what if it started to rain immediately when I got to my porch?  How cool would that be.  Like a miracle. I tell God, if you have it rain right when I step on that porch, I'll take that as a personal message that you're looking out for me. (I rebuke myself a little.  God doesn’t speak in miraculous way that he did in the days when Jesus walked this world in the flesh.  And yet, the way he speaks now as a result of what Jesus did for us is almost even more miraculous.)

I breathe.  David helps me carry the stuff to the front porch.  Before I step up, I am expectant, wondering what God is going to do.  I step up, and look around.  

It is not raining.  

I want you to talk with your son.  I want you to be mindful.  I care about you.  I care about your children.  I care about your relationship with each other and your relationship with me

I call my son over to me.  “Sit down next to me,” I say.  He sits.  “I think it’s going to rain,” I say. 
The sky rumbles.  “Wow!  What is that?” I ask, and look at him expectantly.  He eyes are on me but he doesn’t say anything.  “That’s called thunder,” I explain. 

He smiles big when it thunders again, and searches the sky for the source of the noise.  He says, “What is that?” and his tone mirrors how I asked the question before.

“Thunder,” I say. “Thunder,” he repeats. 

“David, look up.  Do you see the leaves rustling in the wind?  Moving?  That’s because of the wind.  The air is moving through the leaves.  What do you feel?  Put your hand out.”  He puts his hand out.  “What does the air feel like?”  He looks at me.  “Does the air feel wet or dry?”

“Dry,” he says.

“It feels kind of wet to me,” I say.  “That’s called humid.  There’s moisture in the air.  What about Mama?  Is Mama’s skin dry or wet?” 

He smiles big again.  “Dry.”

“Touch my arm,” I say.  He touches my hand.  “No, touch my arm.  Run your finger along my arm.  Is my skin dry or wet?”

“Wet,” he says and he laughs, touching my sweaty skin.  “It’s wet because Mama was sweating.  Mama worked hard and she’s sweating.”

It got cold all of a sudden and the breeze picked up a little.  “David, what do you feel now?  Did it just get cold all of a sudden?  Do you feel that cool breeze?  That’s the wind.  It’s what’s making the leaves rustle.”  I think.  “Hey, look at me,” I tell him, and he turns to face me. I blow in his hair and he giggles and shakes his head.  “That’s what the wind’s doing, moving the leaves.”

David listens to the sounds, and he says, “Thunder.”

“That means it’s going to rain soon,” I say.  We watch the leaves for a few seconds, and the raindrops start to fall.  “Look, David!  What do you see?”

“It’s raining,” he says.

“Yes, it’s raining.”  I talk about the things that we saw that told us it was going to rain.  The things we felt.  The things we heard.  “Maybe we should step inside now that it started to rain,” I say, and I start to get up.

“No, watch the rain,” he says, and my heart stops a little as time slows from the joy that I feel as my son watches the raindrops fall.

My body chuckles, and I sit back down. “Okay, we can sit and watch the rain.”  After a minute I take some pictures, and he enjoys that.  It starts to rain harder, and he wants to step inside, so we do. 

Not a very good selfie, but D looks cute.
I thought that the moment of God speaking to me was over, but as we walk through the door, my son's eyes search for mine and when he finds them, he says, “Go for a jog.  Watch the rain.  Leaves rustling.  Wind blowing.  Started to rain, step inside.  Take pictures.”   In his words I see the stroller.  I see the rain falling on the leaves.  I see them rustling, dark green-brown tiny flags in the wind.  I see the rain like crystals dropping on the walkway, covering the road in glistening, thriving sheen.  I feel the wind through my fingers and gently on my face, even as the door is closed behind me.  I feel open from hearing the words of my child as he shows me the world, even as I just showed it to him.


In heaven and in my heart, I feel as if I am seeing God.  He breathes, and he smiles.

The view from our front step

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A response to the high school student who implied no one learns Spanish from a classroom

The other day I was chatting with a high school student.  He said he was taking Spanish, and as I always do, I asked him how he felt about his foreign language classes.  He said they were ok, but that he has forgotten a lot over the summer.  Then he became thoughtful and asked me, “Who actually learns foreign language in a classroom, anyway?”  Well, I told him, I did… and then I taught high school Spanish for six years.  Obviously there’s some sort of disconnect here.

Later I thought about this topic more as I often do.  The student I talked to seem to disregard that high school foreign language classes had any purpose.  His attitude seemed so fixed that I wondered if it was possible for him to really develop any fluency at all. 

You can definitely choose to not get anything out of your high school foreign language classes.  I’ve noticed the following that can get in the way of high school students from getting the most out of their foreign language classes – both in my own teaching and in my experience as a foreign language student.

Many students assume that they will get everything they need to become bilingual through their Spanish classes, and they do not seek out other learning opportunities.  If the only place you have to learn the foreign language is in your classroom, you are at a disadvantage.  The more contexts that you hear and use Spanish, the better it is for your learning, and you are only with your Spanish teacher for so long.  If you want to get the most out of your learning experience, I suggest that you take initiative and look for some conversation partners, find a Spanish club, watch Spanish language youtube videos or TV, put a movie on with Spanish subtitles, listen to the radio, whatever you can find.  Ask your teacher for tips.  Ask other students what has worked for them.  Teach your family words some Spanish and ask them to help you, if they are willing.

That said, I know the above is hard.  High school students tend to be very busy with a wide variety of classes and activities.  Even if you can’t find those other learning opportunities, I encourage you to still focus and do the best you can in your class, because in the future those opportunities, whether professional or personal, might come to you.  And don’t make the following mistakes.

Some students push back against the teacher’s use of Spanish in the classroom.  They choose not to use Spanish, and respond in only minimal Spanish. The teacher asks them a question in Spanish and they understand the question, but respond back in English.  Part of this may be the teacher’s fault.  The teacher may not have clearly set the stage for when English is appropriate in the classroom and when it is not (a mistake that I have been guilty of in the past).  The teacher may have been using Spanish that was consistently incomprehensible to the student.  However, part of this may also be the student’s fault.  They may be adding to the difficulty by informally using English with their classmates while the teacher is trying to teach.  This means that any around that student will be paying attention to the English instead of the Spanish, because the brain likes easy.  The student may fall into this repeated phrase, “I understand more than I speak it.”  Of course you do!  Everyone does when they’re learning!  That’s not a bad thing.  You need to give your teacher your eyes and ears, and make an intentional effort to tune out the unnecessary English in the classroom if you truly want to learn Spanish.  I know, it may be awkward socially, but it’s up to you.  Just know that using excessive English in your class will keep you from learning the foreign language and will also keep others from learning it, too.  And they may be too embarrassed to ask you to stop.  Hopefully your teacher addresses stuff like this.  If you want to make the most out of your foreign language classroom, and ANY class that you’re taking, I suggest you take responsibility for your learning.

Many students assume that high school is too late for you to really get fluent in a foreign language anyway, because you’re too old.  I’m parenting two little kids at home, and there are several things I’ve noticed about my kiddos that I think makes them excellent little language learners.  Yes, they are quite good at it, but it doesn’t seem like they pick up language uber fast when my son will be 3 in November and he still can’t really hold a conversation.  I’ve spent almost 3 years loving a child that I can’t verbally communicate with very well right now.  Yikes.  You tell me that kids pick up language “like that” and right now I’m just going to give you this open eye stare.  Ask me again in a few years when my kids can talk and I think my eyes will be brighter, but right now I’m in the thick of this and I kind of miss adult conversations.

It’s not true that you’re too old to learn a foreign language.  From the research I’ve read, the evidence is that older students and adults can learn a language just as well and even faster as little kids, when it comes to words and structures.  However, a little kid has the advantage when it comes to native-like pronunciation.  Additionally, just watch a little kid for a while and you may learn a lot about learning.  What makes a little kid such a good learner, and what can WE, older learners, learn from THEM?  Here are some things they do, that I think we can do too if we let them teach us:

Their learning is focused on need.  A bilingual child who grows up speaking a minority language learns that language at home because of necessity.  Want to communicate with Mom?  Speak Spanish.  Want to communicate with your Korean grandparents?  Speak Korean.  OK, so maybe you want to learn a language that no one else in your family speaks.  HOPE IS NOT LOST.  The question to ask yourself is, what can you do to create that environment of need?  It goes back to trying to find situations where you need to use your Spanish (or whatever language you’re learning) in order to get by.  This is why having times where you commit to not using spoken English can be helpful.  It can backfire, though, if this is forced on you.  Feeling excessive frustration can shut you down and make you not able to learn.  That’s why the people that are teaching you Spanish should try not to frustrate you too much.  That said, a little frustration is necessary and good for you.  If you’re in a frustrating situation, make the best of it and do your part. 

Little kids have intense interests and learn from these, too.  A little kid who is interested in oceans will learn all sorts of crazy ocean animals that the adults in his or her life don’t even know.  A little kid who is interested in the alphabet and word patterns may be an early reader.  Some kids like math and it comes easier to them because they like it.  Some kids are super creative and are doing role plays and make believe, and they learn through that.  This is super helpful to think about because, if you just honestly don’t like Spanish, you have an extra hurdle to jump through.  But even then, HOPE IS NOT LOST!  The question for you, then, is, what can you do to enjoy Spanish a little more?  Maybe you can talk to your teacher and ask for support.  Maybe you can connect it to what you enjoy.  Like to draw?  Draw out your vocab words.  Like to write?  Keep a Spanish journal.  Like to watch Disney movies?  Put it on with the subtitles.  How would you answer this question, and actively try to enjoy Spanish a little more?  That will help your learning big time.

Little kids REPEAT EVERYTHING.  I watched one of my son’s friends push a train around a track about 10 or 15 times yesterday.  Imagine if you did that and the whole time were practicing your Spanish, repeating words and phrases related to trains.  You’d probably learn a lot.  This repetition is especially useful early on in your language learning.  At a certain point it might not be so needed because you’ll have other strategies to use with your larger vocabulary, but in the beginning – harness this little kid ability to repeat, repeat, repeat and mush those words around in your mouth awhile.  Say them out loud.  Are you embarrassed?  Look at that little kid rolling around on the floor as he watches his numbers video on youtube and sings along.  (Uh, yeah, that’s my son.)  He is not the least bit embarrassed.

Little kids MOVE.  They’re very kinesthetic learners.  I’m just gonna say that I think most people are more kinesthetic than they think.  I wonder how much more Spanish we’d learn if we made it a habit of doing something while we’re learning.  Take a walk and practice your Spanish.  Do an activity and use Spanish while you’re doing it.  Over mealtime, while you’re eating.  While you’re brushing your teeth or putting on your shoes. 

Little kids have a harder time differentiating between themselves and others, and themselves and the world.  They perhaps see themselves as more part of the world and community than we do, more connected, less individual.  Have you heard it said that an infant doesn’t see himself as apart from his mother?  I have a toddler and an infant and that makes sense to me.  That infant is attached to me.  When I leave the room, he cries.  He sees me as a part of him.  I think that as we get older, we come out of the world a little more.  It’s a little bit of a loss of connection.  And words – they connect us to real things.  You’ve already made connections of words to things – your native language words to whatever things it represents.  But do you really know all there is to know about that thing?  Different languages sometimes express different things to the same word.  The different perspective is different.  If you want to see things how a foreigner sees them, learning their language is a great way to do that.  Look at the daily patterns in your life as if you are experiencing them for the first time – as if they are new, and you are a part of them.  Don’t take them for granted.  This can be really hard, maybe.  But also very fun!

Little kids are constantly making mistakes.  I watch my little kids and I imagine if I were in their place, it would be so hard for me.  They are walking around in an adult’s world, and there are so many things they are just not good at, and can’t do by themselves.  Their daily experience is full of failures.  But they don’t see it that way.  They don’t see their frustrations as failures – they try, try, and try again – sometimes to a fault!  But we can give them credit where credit is deserved and acknowledge how hard they work.  And oh, when they succeed, it feels so good!  What if we were to see our mistakes like this, as experiences to even be savored sometimes.  Trying to build a block tower to the ceiling?  The process is fun even though it will fall down many times before you every make it – and you may not even make it – but oh how fun!

“No one really learns Spanish in a classroom, anyway, right?” I don’t think that’s the real question that you should be asking here.  The real question is, What can I do to learn the most that I can from my Spanish classroom?  You, your classmates, and your teacher have a little community there.  Participate in it, take responsibility for it and try to learn as much as you can and help others to learn. 

Have fun.

Make mistakes.

MOVE.

Show yourself and others grace.  Don’t make fun of people.  It just takes 1 time for you to say a negative word to color someone’s day.  Say lots of positive words. 

If you don’t like your Spanish class, instead of complaining, brainstorm what you could do to get more out of it.

Ask for help.

Think.

I love how so many life skills are tied up in learning language.  It’s so cool to me.  It makes me excited like a little child.  What makes you excited, like a little child?  I want you to do those things.  I know that maybe Spanish will not be that thing for you, but … if you are stuck in a Spanish class (or any other class) for however many minutes a day for however many years, wouldn’t it be awesome to get something out of it and help others get something out of it? 

I’m not always excited about teaching Spanish and using Spanish, by the way – and on those days, I choose to do it anyway, because I believe it’s what I’m supposed to be doing (outside of my first priority, which is being a good wife and mom).  But I’ve worked hard at it for many years, and thankfully most days I do enjoy it.

And don’t forget – create that element of need.  What was my element of need?  When I was in 8th grade I had a friend that didn’t speak any English, and I didn’t speak any Spanish.  We looked at picture books and drew on the chalkboard during recess.  I learned a few Spanish words, and she learned a few English words.  I think that this is what has been drawing me to Spanish for my whole life.  I needed some Spanish to communicate with my friend.  There are friends that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t speak Spanish.  I will meet people in the future that speak Spanish, and because I also speak Spanish, we can be friends.  My reasons for learning Spanish are personal and have become professional through teaching.  I created this sense of need for myself, and have found a lot of help in my teachers, friend, and now family.  Shout-out to my husband who this morning was trying to use his broken Spanish to tell me that he wanted to mow the lawn tonight.  “Yo cuarto… tonight…”  I thought he was talking about planning to fold laundry left in the bedroom because the word “cuarto” means room.  But then I realized he was talking about the lawn, because we talked about it yesterday.  Context is everything!  So I said, “¿Vas a cortar el zacate esta noche?  Grass is zacate.” He said, “Sí!” He also talked to the kids during breakfast in Spanish, and said goodbye in Spanish.  Whoooo!!!  He is sending a message to our kids that Spanish is important, and I love it.

I’m not by any means saying you should be as excited about Spanish as I am.  We all have different paths.  If learning Spanish is something that you want to do to be on your path, then …  MAKE IT SOMETHING YOU NEED AND ENJOY.
  • What will you do to create an element of need?
  • What will you do to connect Spanish to your interests?
  • What things that little kids do can you do more, to help you better learn Spanish?

Find your answers to these questions.  Your own answers.  Don’t use mine.


What else can you think of? 

Thursday, August 4, 2016

These Present Days

Last week, I had two different women tell me something along the lines of “I miss those days.”  I forget exactly what the context was.  I know the first time I was getting out of my car.  I don’t know if the kids were fussing a little or if I just looked frazzled, or if the comment just came as a conversation starter.  I do know that whenever people ask me how I am, I’m not one of those people who will just say “I’m fine” or “I’m good.”  I actually tell people how I’m really feeling.  But if I feel badly and don’t feel like complaining, I usually just give them this really wide-eyed, teeth clenched sort of grin, which is a picture of how I feel quite often right now, parenting two kids in diapers.  I think that when I heard this comment the second time I was in a grocery store or something.  I know I had made it obvious somehow that I was having kind of a rough time, and the comment came back, “You’re going to miss it someday.”  I just gave that same wide-eyed smile.  I told both women the same thing.  I said, “I’m looking forward to the day when I’m going to miss it.”
 
This isn’t one of those essays on what not to say.  I have read a lot of those in my day, and I’ve liked them.  I’ve snickered at them and forwarded them to like-minded people.  You may have read them:  “10 Things Not To Say To A Pregnant Woman.”  “7 Things Not To Say To Those Struggling With Depression.”  And the like.  Those that are close to me know that I’m pretty sensitive, so these “don’t say” essays have really resonated with me.  But in year or so, I’ve changed my mind.  I feel that our culture right now spends so much time thinking about what not to say, and not nearly enough on what actually should be done.  My own brain is drawn to the negative, and the constant exposure to negativity is not helping me to rewire it.  It’s just so much easier to fixate on the negative.  What about the positive?  What happens to it?  Where does it go when my brain is rounding its cycle of negative thinking again?  As I reflect on this, I know that the heart of what these women wanted to share with me is that there is beauty and wonder and treasure in these days.  One day, I know that I really will miss them.  But this essay isn’t about that either.

I really meant what I said to those ladies that I’m looking forward to the future, because it means I won’t have today’s daily struggles.  I’m getting a little teary eyed right now, thinking about this feeling, of how a part of me wants to wish away the present when I don’t like it.  Yes, sometimes I really do want to fast-forward to the day when things are going to be easier.  When my kids are a little more independent, when I have more than 20 minutes to myself, when they’re in school and I have – how many hours is that?  I can’t even think, because it’s so crazy to imagine having a full day to myself.  A day where at least my body is my own.  No kids tugging on me, hanging out nursing, climbing on me.  Sometimes I’m jealous of my husband that he gets to go to work.  He gets to spend time edifying others through the work that he does.  I’m jealous of friends with part time jobs, especially teachers.  I start to think about what I missed about working full time.  I could go on, because it’s just so stinking easy to think about the negative stuff.  It also doesn’t help that no matter how many times people tell me that I’m going to miss these days, no matter how many articles I read encouraging me to just sit in the moment with my kids and enjoy them, I am still going to have very rough days when I want to press the fast forward button.  Days when I forget that my children are real people, and being with them is a good work, and that I really do like their hugs.  I don’t like that it’s so easy to find myself with my finger hovering over the fast-forward button.

On the other hand, It’s not always like this.  My toddler and I have similar interests.  He absolutely loves letters and words, and I get to speak Spanish with him, and we’re even trying to learn a bit of German.  He asks me to read “Mama’s German book.”  It’s really fun!  He’s starting to repeat words from songs.  The other day I was singing an alphabet song and he said, “Good song, mama.”  He responds to my energy.  The baby is a happy little guy.  He’s always smiling.  He loves to look at you and watch people.  Big brother makes him burst out laughing like nobody else, and the toddler has just recently started wanting to give him hugs and interact with him more.  For most of the six months of baby brother’s lifetime, big brother has just ignored him.  It’s really fun to see how they are starting to interact.  Parenting is fun a lot of the time.
 
When it comes down to it, as much as sometimes I joke about wanting to press the fast-forward button, I never would.  That’s because I can make decisions that are apart from my emotions.  I really do feel like I want to press it sometimes, but I wouldn’t.
 
There’s also something that I’m grateful for now that I didn’t always have:  a very strong support network.  Our kids have awesome grandparents that are always there for us.  I have friends that I enjoy and that enjoy me, that encourage me, that are walking, many of them, in the same life stage that I’m at.  I also have some friends that are just beyond where we’re at now, friends that are empathetic, not far enough from the two-kids-in-diapers stage to have forgotten what it was like, but far enough away that as I watch how they interact with their older kids and I realize that wow, I really am looking forward to that.  I have a husband who helps with the kids, helps with stuff around the house, engages me in authentic, genuine conversation, seeks the Lord, seeks forgiveness when he messes up, has the courage to confront me when I mess up in a big way and also has the grace to let it go when I mess up in a minor way.  I also have a relationship with an amazing God.  I have a God that even in those low moments, those moments where I’m longing to press the fast-forward button, he tells me, “It’ll be okay.”  He tells me that he has a plan for me.  He tells me that while it may take a while for me to see what the plan is, that one day I will.  Other people can tell me these things but it means so much more when it comes from God, because no one knows my heart and my purpose in the world the way that he does.  He’s the only one that can really help me through this, after all, and I’m thankful that he’s put people in my life to share his words with me, through their encouragement, through their companionship.  I don’t know how I would get through this stage of my life without God.  I don’t know how anybody does.

In other news, I’ve been walking more.  I really love that walking gives me time for introspection and prayer.  The other day I came in from a walk and I sat down to read my Bible.  I opened it haphazardly to the page with this verse: “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”  (Colossians 2:6-7)  I thought that was beautiful.  The path that I’m walking has a lot of detours, but I’m choosing to do the best I can to stay on the path God has for me.  It’s a bright path, with lots of space for people to walk side by side with me.  Some people are walking a little in front.  Some are walking a little behind.  Some come in step with me for a little while.  Some are camped out with me for the long haul, strapped into the stroller that I’m pushing in front of me.

I’m still looking forward to the day when I’m going to miss these days, and with effort -- with affection and love that sometimes leads me to tears, with a resolve that varies between frustrated reluctance, a joyful eagerness, and quiet peace -- I’m learning to enjoy these present days too.


Saturday, July 2, 2016

Refuge under his wings

I have a thing about hawks.  For years, it seems that I've been seeing them on the road at moments when I'm down.  When I see the hawk, I am reminded of how God watches over me and I feel encouraged.  It's kinda weird and I'm wary about falling into being superstitious about stuff like this, but I feel lifted up in those moments.  I've come to the conclusion that God uses little experiences like this to encourage and lift me up when I need to have my faith bolstered.

Today I was driving home from visiting family and thinking about heaven.  I was feeling grateful that my future is secure.  I was thinking about how I want my friends and family there with me.  Then, there was a sudden feeling of doubt as I imagined a future where we just drift off to sleep, and then emptiness.  A sad darkness.  I had stayed in that emotional spot for only a few seconds before I saw to my right the wide and beautiful wingspan of a hawk alight on a very close speed limit sign, tucking its wings around itself just as I'm passing the sign.  Its head seems tilted towards me as I drive past.

The words that come to my mind are, He will wrap you in the shelter of his wings.  It's amazing to me how often experiences like this happen.  Some people may attribute these moments to coincidence, but I recognize it as God speaking to me.

"He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge." (Psalm 91:4)

 I'm thankful for this encouragement!