Culture · Pandemic · Teaching

all for want of a puzzle

Well, team, here we are. Two months yesterday I got an email saying, “Pack up your laptop and essentials. You’ll be teaching from home next week.” Two months since life was something I recognized, and two months since Corona was just a crappy beer I didn’t like.

The past two months have been just plain hard, and being trapped on Emily Island has been no picnic, believe you me. Feeling off, being out-of-sorts, muddling along, and being a bit down have been common themes of “the new normal.”

I cried a lot. I was angry a lot. I wandered around aimlessly a lot. And I kept coming full circle, thinking, Why? I have no right to feel this way. So many other folks are so much worse off than I am. How can I possibly be so mad about the fact I am out of parsley? And yes, while this was true, knowing it did nothing to ebb the vague, gnawing sadness that seemed to color everything, or prevent me from feelings of cavernous loss. There are few things worse, I think, than mourning something you can’t quite put your finger on. It was terrible.

Then about two weeks ago, a horrible, cataclysmic thing happened that brought everything to a head:

Two puzzles I ordered on Amazon in the last week in March and which I had been awaiting for a month were delivered to the wrong city.

I know, you’re thinking, “Well, that isn’t so bad. I thought someone lost their job or died or something.” But let me tell you. In that moment, those puzzles were everything. I was so upset, I couldn’t see straight. In the span of about two hours, I found out that you can’t call Amazon right now (there is no one answering their help line), I couldn’t email them because coming from an “independent seller” I had to contact this party myself, and the tracking numbers told me that the puzzles were simultaneously on my doorstep, on their way to Madison, and still somewhere in Indiana (depending on which device I was on at the time). I was basically up a creek without a paddle. And I was furious.

After a rather…hm, shall we say…spirited exchange with the Vulcan in which he got a crash course in a good way not to try to console me (poor man), I was sitting on the sofa, sobbing about these puzzles and feeling really quite silly (which made me even more angry), and I was struck by a sudden epiphany. My meltdown was (shock of shocks) not really about my puzzles.

I was, at my core, upset, because I am terrible at everything my job is currently asking of me. I hate writing and replying to emails. I don’t know how to “digitally connect” with my students to make them engage and do what they need to. I don’t like staring at a screen for hours on end. I dislike not being able to interpret the subtext of what my students are saying in between the lines, because I cannot see their faces. No part of me is excited by the idea of being a part of (much less being in charge of) a virtual choir. I don’t like Adobe. I don’t spend much time on social media. I don’t like being in meetings when people I only know on a professional basis ask me how I am doing. Literally, I am good at no part of my job right now. And do you know what I did about that?

I mourned. I sat around and was sad for two days. I did nothing. I didn’t cook. I did the absolute minimum that everyone expected of me. I did nothing except eat tortilla chips and watch 5 1/2 seasons of M*A*S*H while I put together the giant, 2,000 piece puzzle the Vulcan brought me (the last one in the whole of Target because he is a good, kind, and also a very wise man). And I let myself be really upset. I sat around and thought about how sad I was. I reflected on the relationships I had with students which were just starting to blossom and which now will not be. I mourned the fact that I am not the kind of teacher who turns her house into a magical, virtual classroom, and I mourned that I didn’t feel bad about the fact I didn’t want to be. I. was. sad.

And let me tell you something. Allowing myself to go to the dark place–not to try to “keep moving,” or tell myself that other people were worse off than me, or force myself to be this person I am not–was unspeakably freeing. In acknowledging all of what I am not and cannot, I was able to accept that yes–this is okay. The things I am make my good at my job. And this is not my job. This is a crisis management version of my job. I am just surviving. And that is okay. It is okay that right now, I am doing my best and it isn’t the most amazing.

And after this mourning, this two day period where the Vulcan said he kept waking up in the wee hours with the M*A*S*H theme song in his head, I started to feel better. (I also finished the puzzle, so there was that). I started to want to do my best, even though I know it isn’t nearly as great as people who were born for this. I put away the tortilla chips and signed myself up for Noom (which is awesome, by the way). I made a color-coded calendar in my work planner. I put on my running shoes and went for a run. (It was slow and terrible, but I did it!) I signed up for a half marathon in August. I started baking things. I went and saw my family socially-distantly. And I started to feel like me again. And it is so exciting, I can hardly stand it.

And all of this got me to reflect on the nature of things. I was at a Bible study once, and it was talking about the importance of mourning and lament in the Bible. I didn’t really get it at the time. “Lament” seemed like a very remote word from my 21st century life. But I get it now. Lamenting has helped me move forward.

We are, as a society, not the best at mourning. We’re good at wallowing, at blame, and at anger, but not necessarily mourning. When people are sad, there are a million things to distract you, to fix you, to remind you that you’re better off than some other poor slub. And yes, there are times when we just have to go nose-to-the-grindstone and get things done because we have to. And in this rollercoaster of emotions I’ve been on in the past six weeks, I’ve done all of these things. (I went a bit Amazon crazy that second week of quarantine…) But I didn’t really start to feel myself coming out of the fog until I just took the time and acknowledged the sadness and the loss. I didn’t belittle it for being kind of lame, because it didn’t change how I was feeling.

And I can’t help but think that right now, everyone is mourning something. Some of them are big, “real” things (like death, for instance, or life milestones that have been taken away–weddings postponed, graduations cancelled), but some are little things that nonetheless remind us that we are not now who we once were. Baseball didn’t begin in April. Spring concerts didn’t happen. Wandering around the store without an agenda is now a thing of the past. Hugs you don’t get. Faces you don’t see. There is a whole lot of loss around for a culture of people who don’t do mourning. I think we may have to learn how to do it.

And if you are, might I recommend tortilla chips and M*A*S*H?

Happy or sad, stay well, my friends. I’ll see you tomorrow!

Emily

“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” –Matthew 5:3

5 thoughts on “all for want of a puzzle

  1. Loved your honesty and frailty Emily. So many emotions that so many can’t express. Me thinks you’ve done it for them.

    Sounds like you’ve got a gem of a husband😉

  2. The way your honestly shared your mourning over what once was is very touching. I’m thankful that you, after going through the dark places, have come out into the sun, or should I say Son, again. Thanks for sharing your heart.

  3. I was very moved by your sharing of your mourning. And you know what? sometime in the last 2 days on MPR (that’s Minnesota Public Radio in case you’re not as addicted and close to it as we are in La Crosse) some famous author or doctor or therapist whose name I don’t remember and some very talented interviewer (let’s see which one was that? it probably doesn’t matter) talked about how essential it is for our whole country to mourn our losses (large, medium or small, whatever they may be) and how those who don’t do it risk future trauma (possibly to the degree of PTSD). You’ve helped me understand at a deeper level than they did, how important it is to allow myself to grieve, to mourn. And then to go back like you did to life in action: the antidote to despair. Thank you for your beautiful writing, Emily.

    1. I am so happy this helped you. I truly believe that the Puzzle Incident was a turning point for me, without which I don’t know if I could have moved forward. The past few weeks feel like coming out of a fog…good luck and God’s grace on your own mourning. ❤

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