“If you don’t like the road you’re walking, pave another one.”-Dolly Parton
I did what I had to do. My daughter says I have a habit of making short-term decisions; that I lack the ability to see the long view. Perhaps. Throughout my life I have put one foot in front of the other, looking down so as not to trip, rather than watching for what lays ahead. Somehow it has gotten me here. I have a tendency to panic, a fear of falling.
At 19 when my parents sold the house and moved on to their 32-foot sailboat to travel around the world, I panicked and married my prom date. We stuck with it for about ten years when I suddenly found myself alone and pregnant.
After some struggles and job-hopping, I decided I could buy myself some time by returning to school and become a teacher. This gave me more time with my toddler. Being a mom, a good mom, was important to me. If I didn’t have a sitter, she would go to class with me. If she was sick, missing a class was so much easier than missing an entire day of work. After two years, I returned to work but at a school, so our hours were pretty much the same and I had holidays and summers off. Even with a large cut in pay, I always felt this was a good decision for us, her and I.
In spite of me being really bad at managing finances, we got along pretty well. She went to school every day and I went to work as a teacher. On Sundays we attended church. In our free time we went swimming or cuddled on the sofa and watched movies. Sometimes we would spend a long weekend at the beach. She was good company and always made me laugh. We could’ve gone on like that; we were a good little family, her and I.
THE MYTHOLOGY OF THE WHITE PICKET FENCE
The problem is, I bought into the myth that we were not a complete family. To be complete we needed a house, a husband, a father-figure. You know, the white picket fence. As soon as I had the chance I remarried. That was a mistake. From the very beginning, I knew it was a misstep. This was not a slow recognition of miscalculation, rather from the beginning I tried to convince myself of something I knew deep down to be untrue. I tried to tell myself that he would learn to love me and to love my child; that I would learn to love him and his children. I tried. Really, I did. What was not there was not there. Each day became more miserable than the one before. Until one day, I just couldn’t live the lie anymore.
I didn’t know how to leave; I was not the abandoner. He was the one person who needed to leave and he wouldn’t. So, I did it wrong; I left wrong. I left and that was good, but I left in a messy way which was not so good.
That’s when I ran. I ran until I could run no more. Then I spiraled. It was ugly and it nearly ruined me. But the important thing is, I got up and climbed out of the hole. Every day since has been a step toward improvement. That is my story.
Since Sunday, we have experienced the coldest weather in South Central Texas since 1960. Single digit temperatures were nearly unheard of until now. We are experiencing more snow than I have ever seen here. It is truly beautiful.
We are fortunate. Our pantry is full. My husband and I have each other and our dogs. We have a wonderful and cozy home. We have no reason to drive on the icy roads.
However, the electric grid in Texas has had some problems. I don’t pretend to understand fully how the power infrastructure works. Perhaps I should educate myself on the matter. What I do know is that much of what has occurred over the last several days could have been avoided. This weather was predicted.
We lost power on Monday for about 12 hours. Then it was off and on unpredictably until yesterday morning (today is Thursday) when we began to experience pretty regular rolling blackouts. Since 5:30 pm yesterday we have had power consistently, but we had no water. Around 10:30 this morning the water came back on and we scrambled to fill buckets, bowls and the bathtub. We also managed hot showers and a load of laundry. The snow continues to fall heavily, and we have no idea whether we will lose power and/or water again or when. We have water boiled and ready to drink or use for cooking. We are managing just fine, considering.
In fact, we feel extremely fortunate. At this time, I have little to offer others besides moral support. I have been on the phone and texting my sister-in-law who lives in San Antonio; her circumstances are far more dire than ours. She has been without power, heat and water almost the entire time. I think of friends with young children who are going through this. There are people suffering from COVID and other illnesses surviving without heat. Hospitals have had to move patients out of their facilities due to lack of power. Grocery stores are closed with empty shelves and no power.
As ill-prepared as we were for this winter storm, we were far better prepared than others. Next time we will be even more equipped, I hope. We will have bottled water, dry firewood and a working fireplace. The thing is, next time it will not be a frigid winter storm but something altogether different. Something we cannot even imagine. That’s how life works. We did not foresee this fiasco; nor did we foresee the pandemic. Others may have, should have perhaps, but regular people living regular lives don’t often think beyond our immediate needs.
Right now, my hope for myself and others is simply warmth and safety and the ability to appreciate the beauty outside our windows.
For eight years I commuted daily from my home in Canyon Lake to Johnson City where I worked. In the beginning my commute was 40-45 minutes one way. By the time I quit my job several months ago, the commute was sometimes as much as an hour.
Many people have such a commute or much worse. It can take a big chunk out of your day. I cannot complain. I especially cannot complain because my commute never included city traffic. I did not sit at stop lights or suffer with stop and go traffic. My commute took me through the countryside. In fact, with the exception of road repairs, a wreck or a tractor slowing down traffic on two lane roads, it was pretty nice.
Driving time gave me time to think, to anticipate the workday, to decompress at the end of a long day. Often, I would allow my mind to wander but I also listened (and sang loudly and badly along) to music or the news, the occasional audio book or perhaps NPR.
Part of my commute included a view of the lake; in the morning that might mean a sunrise over the lake or a full moon in winter when days are short. In the afternoon I might sight a motorboat whizzing across the water from a distance, reminding me that I am homeward bound to the world of water sports.
I always had to watch carefully for deer, especially in the dark. The fact that I never hit a deer, something that is common out here, is a minor miracle. Over the years, I have spotted, besides deer, hawks, foxes, wild pigs, and the occasional roadrunner. As cautious as I had to be for them, I always marveled at the wildlife along the way and often wished for company to share the experience.
There was also roadkill to carefully swerve from; raccoons, armadillos, deer, and smelly skunks made their way to the path of passing vehicles.
I drove through every kind of weather, of course. Driving rain and lightning storms would sometimes force me to pull over for a while. There was the occasional sleet or snow or hail or tornado warnings too. Central Texas is notorious for flooding and I had several low water crossings along my route, making me anxious to get home before the rain fell too heavily.
Once, I left the house in a driving rain only to make it about a mile and a half before pulling over into the parking lot of a local diner. This put me between low water crossings so that I could not make it to work, nor could I return home. Along with other stranded souls, I waited out the deluge in the café, eating a hearty breakfast and making new friends.
Always in the Spring, I delighted in the abundance of wildflowers. With a big thank you to Lady Bird Johnson, my commute was often absolutely gorgeous. Acres of bluebonnets from the end of February through March or so led to Indian Paintbrush, Winecups (a personal favorite, so fragile but bright), Black-Eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s Lace. Then the yucca blooms and the Mountain Laurels. Well into fall something blooms.
In spite of all the days that I rolled into my driveway tired and world weary, the drive was pretty nice. Still, I am grateful I no longer have to make that commute.
Always, the best part of my commute was turning on to our little street, passing through the gate, driving under the canopy of trees and seeing our river flowing idly by. I was home.
2020 was difficult; everyone says so. A year ago, we were just beginning to hear about a strange virus in China. Only those of us who are avid news junkies had any awareness of it at all. A virus on the other side of the world in a country that is foreign in every sense of the word, held little meaning for most Americans. We had our own problems. Little did we know, our problems were about to snowball in a way we never imagined. We watched as California and Australia burned. American politics were quickly unraveling. Police brutality and race relations brought on protests and violence. We were beginning to see a resurgence of white supremacy movements. We talked of climate change and global warming. We debated immigration issues. We impeached our president (for the first time). As bad as we may have thought things were at the time, in hindsight things were pretty good in comparison. What we had to look forward to was a global pandemic that we as a nation were not prepared for, nor did we handle well at all.
First, it was the quarantined cruise ships. Then there was the nursing home in Washington State that had an outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. It so happens that my daughter lives in Seattle where it all seemed to begin within the United States. She was telling me about the spread there and the need to lockdown. It did not seem real. She kept telling me how serious it was, that it would surely spread across the country and to pay attention.
I had a trip planned to visit my daughter over Spring Break in March. When I canceled my flight at the last minute, friends here in Texas thought I was being overly dramatic. No, I told them, it’s bad and it’s coming our way. Some things you hate to be right about; this was one of those. I was a librarian in a public school, and we did not return after Spring Break.
Instead, we learned how to work and teach from home. Students attended class remotely. This was new for all of us and we figured it out as we went along. We made mistakes. We managed. We learned new and sometimes better ways to do things. We began attending meetings via Zoom and conducting class that way too. We pushed out laptop computers and hot spots to students. The school cafeteria provided curbside meals so students would not go hungry. Students in our district did not return to a brick and mortar school until the fall although teachers came back in May for a few weeks. Many of us believed we should not return to school at all until we could do so safely and confidently.
School districts across Texas, the Texas Education Agency and the governor had different ideas. Get students back in the school buildings at all cost, no matter what. It did not matter that cases were climbing ever higher or that people were dying from the virus. Teachers and students needed to go back. Unrealistic promises were made to do so safely. There was nothing safe about it.
SCHOOL SAFETY DURING COVID
We returned in August. Zoom meetings came to an end. In person staff meetings resumed without following the six -foot separation rule. Mask wearing, although officially compulsory, was in reality, voluntary. A classroom filled with teachers, already weary and the summer not quite over yet, worried together as they tried to figure out the new reality. Just like the nation, the room comprised those who listened to the Science and those who truly believed the virus to be a hoax and those who fell somewhere in between. Some of us in masks sat as far away as possible from the unmasked, yet we still shared the same recirculating air in an old building with an outdated circulation system. We worried. We fumed at the lack of concern our co-workers displayed. We tried to speak up diplomatically. We tried to be firm.
Students quickly learned when they returned, which classes they had to mask up and respect social distancing in and which ones were mask-free. The lack of consistency made any effort toward safety a joke. I became a grumpy librarian, constantly reminding students and teachers both to wear their masks properly, to distance, to use hand sanitizer. The library was no longer a fun, safe space. The anxiety was exhausting.
I lasted one semester in that environment. After much introspection and many conversations with my husband, I decided to take my retirement in December. The day the decision was made, I began to relax.
Understand, I love being a librarian and a teacher. I love sharing my love for reading with students and talking books with them. By the time I made the choice to give it up, so many extra duties were loaded on me that had very little to do with assisting teachers or student interaction and with the dangerous circumstance of a global pandemic on top of it all, the job had lost its purpose. It was time for me to go.
But here’s the thing: when it all started last March, I viewed the pandemic and what was happening particularly in education, to be an opportunity. An opportunity. We were in crisis mode and this was our chance to make an already broken system better. We figured out that while some students struggled with distance learning, others thrived. We were forced to quickly improve much needed technology and other learning tools. Why not create a hybrid system that works where some teachers teach remotely and others in the classroom? Why not take advantage of 21st century technology and teaching methods to enhance learning for all students? Why not improve the quality of life for students, teachers and parents?
Instead, we were told that teachers would have to struggle with simultaneously teaching remote learners with students in the classroom. Nothing was taken off of teachers’ (or students’) plates. There would still be standardized testing that serves little purpose other than lining the pockets of large testing corporations and allowing politicians to pretend they are doing something. Nothing changed. Square pegs are still being forced into round holes.
If my profession would not take advantage of this opportunity for positive change, then I would do so for myself. If the entire world is so dead set on maintaining a mediocre status quo when provided with this gift of a slowed down life, that doesn’t mean I have to follow suit.
I have made changes for myself and it has been oh so good. In the last year I have learned how to live in the moment. I have learned to be at peace. I have learned to truly appreciate the simple things and to spend time with those who really matter.
My lifestyle has transformed into something better. It is becoming more holistic, pure and genuine. Before, I started and ended my day with a nearly one-hour drive. At work, I juggled between librarian, teacher, administrator, bureaucrat and custodian. At home, I crashed in front of the television most days. I struggled to exercise, to write, to spend time with friends and family. I went out to dinner and ran errands. I attended social events with varying degrees of interest. I met obligations to others. I lived the hectic life we all know so well.
When we went into lockdown in March, I stayed home with my husband and dogs. I worked from home. My husband baked sourdough bread (who didn’t?) and I sewed masks (who didn’t?). We stopped dining out or going to beer and wine tastings. We didn’t see friends or family. We slowed down and it was nice! Life became richer. Days were more meaningful. I began to learn how to appreciate the moment. This was a much healthier lifestyle than anything I had ever known, and I wanted to keep it.
MAKING IT WORK
So, I ended my career in education and I have been home almost two months now. While I am looking for some sort of job, my hope is to find something part-time and working remotely from home. In the meantime, I have been afforded the luxury of putting writing first for the first time in my life. I feel whole. I get to be me 100% of the time. I have lost that anxious feeling and I can breathe. My world is smaller. I walk the dogs each morning and then go for a run. I write until lunch. After lunch I work on job hunting chores for a few hours. I do a little housework here and there. I rarely drive anywhere. On the weekends we may socially distance in the backyard with our dearest friends or with my sisters-in-law. Every few weeks or so I make the hour drive to see my parents or take them to a doctors’ appointments. I am in control of my time and my energy for the first time in my life.
I have been able to use this strange time of COVID to improve the way I live. I know how fortunate I am to be able to do this. I am grateful. It’s hard to say if this is permanent, but I like to think so. My heart breaks for those who have suffered hardships during this time, don’t get me wrong. I understand my privilege. At the same time, I see myself as an example of the advantages of a simpler life. COVID isn’t over but I hope for some good to come from it.