Losing sight and developing vision: An academic’s reflections on her priorities
Last May (2017), the day before my teacher candidates’ graduation ceremony, I woke up with blurred vision in my right eye. The birds were chirping, as usual, the sun was shining through my yellow curtains, and the bold red furniture in my bedroom was an indistinguishable blob. Two nights before, I contently ate Chicago mix popcorn from Trader Joe’s and Haagen Daz ice cream bars. That was dinner. I may have had a smoothie the next morning and then rushed off to pilates. For the most part, I maintained healthy eating habits, enjoyed running, dancing, and working out. I even surprised myself by the “balance” I maintained between a healthy personal life and juggling work. Because of food intolerances, I’m forced to eat mostly healthy foods, but when stressed and emotionally drained, I found my way around it. Gluten-free ginger cookies and Chicago mix popcorn were my jam. Something told me to slow down and grab a meal before rushing off to my next responsibility, but I was late. I headed to the car dealership and still denied listening to my body. Instead of hopping a shuttle somewhere to grab a real meal I snacked on whatever was available. To this day, who knows if these actions were the cause of my vision loss. There are myriad possible culprits: Stress over an ongoing break up, a sketchy contact lens fitting with my optometrist, and/or the stress of too many demands at my job. I may never know, but what’s more important to me now are the lessons I learned.
I endured 7 months from May 2017 to December 2017 of some of the deepest levels of suffering I had ever experienced. Only those closest to me witnessed a slither of this. Work carried on as usual and I managed to experience much joy at the same time. My mom was in the hospital for the duration of that time. Due to multiple forms of oppression, family trauma, and my own social and cultural capital, the weight of it fell on me, or at least it seemed that way. I spent those months back and forth to New York at least four times, often neglecting myself in the process. It took me a while to gain a better perspective. It took me a while to pace myself, slow down, seek the medical attention I needed, and trust that I was doing the best I could for those around me. I spent the summer undergoing several tests, worrying about finances, and navigating a health care system that devalues Black women and poses every bureaucratic barrier possible for those from economically dispossessed communities to access the proper care they need and deserve. I underwent a handful of brain, optical, and spinal MRIs, a lumbar puncture, blood tests, and other medical scares. I worried. I tried to control. Today, one year later, I still do not know the cause. But I learned. And I am still learning. Worrying and control only intensify the suffering. Though it’s hard to remember in rough moments, things always come to be as they are, so we might as well take two seats. We are the waving ocean, with ebbs and flows.
I gained a better understanding of the teaching that “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know” (Pema Chodron). I learned to love, myself, first and foremost. As Jasmine Syedullah says, “I had to learn to love my suffering” and claim my joy. This meant pausing and seeing myself, rather than seeing what others expected of me. Loving myself means truly committing to nourishing my physical body with healthy foods and staying active. This cannot be theory or a fickle thing. My life depends on it. Loving myself means embarking on an ongoing journey of defining myself for myself and discerning between what resonates with my core versus external weights placed on me. I had to choose the right environment for me. I feel joy and peace in my home and environment in California. I had to own this as fact rather than making myself sick by forcing myself to stay in New York City long-term, a place I love to visit and cherish for the many connections I have, but feel overwhelmed by with its brusqueness. Loving myself means developing healthy personal and professional boundaries. I had to and continue to come to terms with the tension I feel between my life and my mom’s life. Sankofa. I would not be where I am today without her love and resilience. I trust that I have done, and continue to do my best. I now recognize that my body tells me when I have done my best. If knots form in my stomach or I’m lethargic, it’s time to slow down and prioritize myself. I’m still learning boundaries at work. It dawned on me that in work and life I am a caregiver. Caregiving is reciprocal, it nourishes the caregiver and the cared-for, but it’s also draining. I have to say “no.” I have to sign off from e-mail on the weekends. I have to work on not internalizing the suffering of those around me. I have to speak up when I feel I am taken for granted. I have to speak up when I experience and witness white supremacist toxic masculinity and respectability politics. I have to sit, pause, reflect, and constantly grow in this journey of being true to myself.
I also learned to love others, their joy, and their suffering. My understanding and experiencing of love had been evolving over time. Much of it learned through relationships with my found family. I learned that love is giving, most importantly, presence. Love is knowing someone is here in its myriad manifestations: Time, an ear, food, humor, physical closeness, encouragement, honesty, and vulnerability. I learned that love is listening without feeling the need to change circumstances, control, or find the solution. Once I stopped grasping for love that wasn’t right for the moment, I got to know a beautiful form of love beyond what I previously fathomed. I knew it existed in theory, but somehow it registers viscerally once it comes into being.
These experiences have deepened my loving pedagogy. I’m not sure if this academic year was filled with more suffering than in previous years or if I simply brought a different lens to it. I have witnessed colleagues and students falling ill, parents dying, struggles with anxiety and insecurities, internal conflicts about choosing the right career, and copious amounts of stress. These of course, are my interpretations, not theirs. I strive to listen. Within this, I have tried to see my students’ humanity, create space for vulnerability, and share more of mine. I think this approach is constructed as antithetical to academia. While submitting late assignments can be obnoxious, especially when you’re someone like me, who hates grading them and has a busy schedule, in the grand scheme of things I just don’t care that much. They will survive. I am mindful of my overachieving nature and trust that an approach of least resistance can still be productive. My e-mails might be quick and to the point, but they are filled with love. I create space in my class for sharing the highs and the lows and acknowledging our humanity. Some days I am better at this than others. I don’t have the one correct solution for my students. I simply try to share wisdom from my own experience. These are insights I don’t think I would have carried as deeply without this year’s beautiful struggle. Work as an educator is filled with joy and beauty, and at the same time, it’s stressful. We have to deal with myriad demands on our time, multiple forms of oppression, bureaucratic madness, and low compensation. At the same time, we have to love and take care of ourselves and our families. Rest, eat well, pause, move, and connect with others. The path to juggling both is unclear.
Feeling good in my body. Slowing down. The sun shining in my bedroom. My soft furry cat cuddling. The warmth of my man. Reflecting on my achievements and journey in life. My mom’s stories and rhythm within my beat. Fresh clean food and water nourishing my body. Being, laughing, crying, and connecting with my found family. Children growing and making sense of themselves and the world. Working with teachers committed to transformative praxis. Slowness. Hiking in the redwoods, mountains, on the coast, and in the city. Running. Dancing. Traveling. Pausing. I strive to be present with the love and joy that is here.