in darkness – part 3

a wake and a funeral.

we went to a special room in the hospital. it is in the basement. it has its own entrance. his name was on the billboard to tell us which door to go through. outside the door is a small table with envelopes. we fill them with money and write our names.

inside the room was a cafeteria, staffed by a cook. next to that there was a small nook. she waited there. his wife. strong as steel. how much had she endured? we exchanged hugs and shared pain. his picture took up one end of the nook. strong and vibrant as he used to be. in front of the picture were offerings and incense. in threes. we put our envelopes in a wooden box nearby. it won’t ease her pain.

lunch followed. how can anyone eat in so much grief. but they believe a shared meal lessens the grief. it is polite to eat. i couldn’t.

‘the funeral is tomorrow. will you come?’
‘i will come.’

we arrived in the morning. they brought the casket out of the hospital to a special room. we paid respect. more incense. his brother had arrived from canada during the night. he and three others carried the casket to the hearse. we got on a bus.

the first stop was his home in town. they carried his picture into the home. prayers and offerings put his spirit there to rest. the school was next. his classroom. our classroom. then his home in the countryside. finally the long road to the crematorium. we waited. the pallbearers brought the casket inside. people in white uniforms took it from there. we went to viewing room. as they lit the fire, she wailed. who could fail to respond with tears of their own? then to a special room to pray and bow. more incense and offerings. she at least must wait until it is finished. to receive the ashes.

we went home. solitary grief.
a body is just a container. the spirit said goodbye to its haunts. it rests.
alone i ignored my grief and buried myself in as much work as i could find. i’d pay later.

15 months have passed.


this awful world

“why is the world such an awful place?” the question was rhetorical. we had just watched more commentary on the orlando night club massacre.

“because of  religion” she answered, only half joking.

i wonder how a simple answer, like religion or homosexuality, like terrorism or politics, or guns, contributes to making the world more understandable.

people all over the world react to violence and terror – some with messages of fear and anger, expressions of their pain, some with simple messages of blame, expressions of their disconnection, and some with messages of love and connectedness, expressions of our common humanity.

the messages that make sense to me are those of connection. are we really all so different that we have to fear each other?

i admit, i’m afraid of a lot of things. i’m afraid of clowns and doctors. i’m afraid of dentists. i’m afraid of elevators and large groups of people. i’m afraid of rejection and humiliation. i’m afraid of my own emotions.

and the more i admit to my fears, in the open, the more i learn that i am not alone in my fears. other people feel the same and we can support each other and learn from each other and even though we are different, we have the same heart.

if there is a simple answer to why the world is an awful place sometimes, i think it is disconnection. and the only answer is love – even though it hurts.

in darkness – part 2

something inside me expected the world to stop turning. how dare the sun rise. i was so angry. at the very least, i expected the whole city to go into mourning. to share my pain.

‘how is he?’ the students asked, as usual.
i turned away to hide my tears. i couldn’t tell them.

the older students came later. he had been part of their lives since they were young. their cheerful faces shocked me out of my gloom. no one had told them. i didn’t understand.
‘what’s wrong, teacher?’
‘i don’t want to tell you.’
they let it go.

‘why?’ i ask later.
‘it is a small town. there will be gossip.’
‘don’t they deserve to know?’
‘you don’t understand.’
‘it’s an insult to them. it’s an insult to his memory.’
‘you don’t understand.’

i kept my pain inside, hidden from the small town. hidden from the children. but i refused to lie.
‘how is he?’
‘don’t ask me.’
‘did he die?’
‘don’t ask me.’

‘let’s go together. it’s tomorrow.’


in darkness – part 1


Photo taken from by Takamin, used under a CC attribution non-commercial license.


i have to start somewhere.

‘how is he?’ the students asked.
‘i don’t know.’ i answered honestly.
‘will he come back?’
‘i don’t know.’

he’d been sick for months. it was brain cancer and it was getting steadily worse. he was in the hospital. he had lost ability to read or write. then he lost ability to speak or move. soon he couldn’t hold up his head.

‘do you want to go with me to visit him?’ he asked me. he’d been a regular visitor. he had never asked me to come.
‘should i?’

by then he could barely swallow food. it was heartbreaking. he had been such a strong man. he built with his hands, fixed things when they broke, was quick to help others. he was patient with the kids and invested in their learning. he was organized and detailed. he made a point of saying thank you.

and now he could hardly speak at all. just a few sounds. yes, and no. easy syllables. he recognized me when i came in his line of vision. he said my name. but what do you say to someone who is dying like this? i listened while others made small talk, holding in my tears for this man who had become a shadow.

‘how is he?’ the students asked, as usual.
‘i don’t know.’ i answered dishonestly.
‘will he come back?’
i turned away.

two weeks later i got the call.



i went to church today.

a friend invited me to go, so i went.
there were about 20 people there.
the order of the service was displayed as a powerpoint presentation. i’d never seen church by ppt before.
a small group of musicians played the hymns, which were selected from ‘the baptist hymnal’. the rest of the liturgy reminded me of my lutheran upbringing.
i knew all the words by heart. the product of memory books in my first three years of schooling. rote learning at its finest, and it has stood the test of time.
i have never thought about what the words mean, or even what they say.

the things that strike me now, after so many years away from it, are the sense of ceremony or ritual and the feeling of going through the motions. some things i had forgotten, like the little acolyte who lit the candles. i was an acolyte once, back when the only thing that word meant to me was the person who lights the candles at church. the all-male leadership and primarily female congregation. wives and children stayed in the pews while men led all the songs, readings, prayers, sermons, and responses. the stand up sit down stand up sit down stand up sit down go in peace serve the lord thanks be to god.

we sat down for dinner tonight. my head was spinning from a combination of my third day of headache, a poor diet, a feeling of vulnerability, and the unexpected trip down memory lane. i just listened, and i remembered a self who hadn’t learned to listen yet. i remembered a self who had to be in the limelight for life to be interesting. she is an abandoned self: abandoned because she was a little too much. i remember the first time i looked into her eyes. it was in a photo someone captured. she was fawning. she was so unreal. i hated her. i ripped the photo to pieces.

now as i listened, i heard the stories of other people. people who were interested in each other and in life and in adventure. people who think differently than i do. people i can learn so much from.

but there is a sacrifice. in order to listen this way, i have to quiet my mind. and in the quiet of my mind, the pain surfaces. i stand on the brink of an abyss, afraid to jump. wanting to fall. in darkness.

the candle

I have just finished reading Chuck Sandy’s iTDi post on Leadership.

Chuck Sandy asks some powerful questions about leadership and the teacher’s journey. To me, all the questions can be summed up into one: how can we help each other?

One line bothered me in the post: “In what ways could you reach out to them for help? What could you offer in return?” My first response to this was: I don’t want to be part of the “business” of helping people. I don’t want giving help to be a transaction. I don’t want someone to feel indebted to me for help – or worse, to feel like they would be indebted if they let me help them and so refuse help.

I don’t think this is what he meant, though. Life is a journey that we walk together. I have received a lot of help along the way. I have tried to be helpful as well. I know I can’t pay back and I know that payback is not usually expected (at least in my circles). But I try as much as possible to pay forward – to help because I know the value of help at the right moment, and also because I’m here and I can help.

Chuck Sandy says, “It’s not just about helping others. It’s also about allowing others to help us.” It is much easier to help others than to allow others to help me. I think part of that is to do with my perception of the intention of the helper. Will it be more trouble than it is worth? Another part has to do with identity. Interacting with other people changes me. There is a part of my identity that fights tooth and nail against this change, that insists on remaining fiercely independent.

At the end of the post, Chuck Sandy quotes James Baldwin: “The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” 

When I am all alone and it is dark
I walk the winding road
Following I know not what
The light that’s in my hand

When I am all alone and it is dark
I don’t know which way to go
I see a point of light ahead
The light that’s in your hand

When I am all alone and it is dark
I find you; you find me
And together we shine brighter
With candles in our hands

I’m not alone; we light the way
We walk into the sea
We light the broken candles
And together freely stand

Teacher’s Day

Well, it’s Teacher’s Day in Korea. I feel a lot of gratitude.

Happy Teacher's Day (Photo by Denise Krebs on flickr CC

Happy Teacher’s Day
(Photo by Denise Krebs on flickr CC

I woke up early this morning and prepared – I bought boxes of nice chocolates for my fellow teachers. I bought boxes of cookies for my students. I took myself out for brunch and I hoped for a peaceful day.

In Korea students sometimes give their teachers gifts on Teacher’s Day. At our school, some students give “collective” gifts – for all the teachers to share (and often to share with the class, too). They give the products of their hands – things they have made or cooked or prepared. Some classes didn’t do anything and that was okay too. Everyone got cookies to eat.

I realize I have been sensitive lately (oh, what a jackal word!). I get angry more easily than I should (jackal again!). So I decided to try to pay attention to my feelings again today and try to identify the observations and needs.

Every time I felt myself getting angry, I checked in. What is happening right now? Is it connected to my feeling at all? How do I want to respond to meet my need for peace? And then I closed my eyes and took a breath. At first, in the earlier part of the day, I yelled anyway. As time went on, repeating the process again and again, I got better at signaling for attention and then just waiting. Halfway through the day it took about 5 minutes for the rowdy class to calm down. And I waited. But my anger drained away and the rest of the class went fine. Maybe my patience met their needs to connect with each other before getting into the lesson?

My last class is typically the worst of the day. But today it was peaceful. Maybe my practice throughout the day affected how I approached them – calmly for once, rather than with the expectation of “problems”.

I don’t know why I am sharing this, but anyway I had a happy Teacher’s Day. I hope other teachers out there did, too.

Challenge response: look first to yourself

ELT bloggers are great for “blog challenges”. But this is the first time I have ever seen an NVC blog challenge. And in exactly the area I need to be challenged – self-empathy.

NVC is something I struggle with. In my practice group yesterday one of the participants reframed everything I said in the language of NVC. I guess he might have done that to help himself listen with giraffe ears. Or to reflect what I was saying. Or just out of habit. Or something I haven’t thought of. But for me reframing my words sounded inauthentic. In retrospect, I think I found the language of NVC distancing and disconnecting at that moment.

I was listening to a telecourse recording recently. One of the facilitators on the course made a really salient point – sometimes people talk about feelings in order to avoid feeling them. It is important to feel my feelings, not label them.

And that is what this challenge is about: identifying my feelings in order to take care of myself first.

So for a class-worth of time today, I paid attention. At first what I felt was anger. I checked on that. It seemed to me that the littlest kids were running around the classroom screaming. How hard it is to observe without judgment in the moment. I had an unmet need for order. I told that to myself. And I made a request of myself to meet my own need for order by using a call and response their other teacher taught them.

I have to admit I didn’t keep track of my feelings through the whole class. I challenge anyone else to try. Feelings are ever-changing and the associated needs and observations are as diverse.

When the class ended without anyone crying I felt relief and tiredness. I had met my needs for order and productivity. Celebration! I also made a request to myself to start the next class a little differently and check in with myself more so that I don’t take out the anger with the last class on the next one.


If I am being completely honest with myself, behind the anger is a sadness that I cannot let myself feel in class. The anger comes from holding that in, along with headaches and tiredness probably. And I guess I’m still holding it now, even in this place where I am allowed to feel. A story of loss, and an intense sadness that craves comfort in its pain, and knows comfort is impossible. A request to myself to give myself permission to feel and time to heal even though I don’t have much hope.

Response: the challenge of mindfulness

An ELT blogger named John Pfordresher wrote a blog post called “the challenge of mindfulness” in which he asked a few questions that are intended to help him in his own mindfulness practice. His questions center around emotion and self-compassion. I thought I might try to take a stab at them, knowing those are not my strong points either and agreeing that “mindfulness” is more than just a buzzword.



How do your powerful emotions affect you?

It depends on the emotion. When I am angry, I hear the buzzing in my ears that means I am not able to hear anything else. When I am sad, my head aches and I feel unaccountably tired and lacking energy. When I am overjoyed, I feel warmth in my chest and my energy levels are raised. It is difficult to make me angry when I am happy. It is difficult to make me laugh when I am sad.


What concrete exercises or measures can we take when powerful emotions seek to control us?

I am not always aware of my emotions and often take my cues from other people’s reactions to me or my own actions, decisions, or body language to remind myself to check how I’m feeling. For instance, I know when my fists are clenched that I am tense. Then I can check whether it’s from anger, pain, or nervousness or whatever. By using my body to identify my feelings, I can increase my awareness. Sometimes for me it is enough to just say out loud, “I’m feeling angry.” or “I’m feeling very happy.” This is an exercise I do with my students every day. We identify how we are feeling (and are free to share reasons or experiences if they choose). The other trick I use is to modify my body language to encourage the mood I want to have. I notice that when I am happy I smile and my body language is more open. So when I think about it, I can try to be open and smile even when I’m not happy. Sometimes by the end of the day I’ve forgotten that I wasn’t happy. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all. Which leads me to …


How can we empathize and be compassionate with ourselves when we fall down, especially over the same hurdle, time and again?

I guess this answer will be different for everyone. For me, the first thing I need to do is give myself permission to feel the way I am feeling. To use an example that is very present for me, “I feel sad. It is okay to feel sad. I will just sit and feel sad for now.” My feelings are not bad or wrong or even necessarily “negative”. They just are. I don’t forgive my actions and reactions quite as easily, I’m afraid. But I would like to be able to say to myself, “I yelled at that child. I was feeling angry and I wanted to control him and make him do what I wanted in order to meet his need for learning. This strategy wasn’t effective. But I am not a bad person. I need to reflect and decide what to do next and pick a new strategy for next time.” That was hard for me to write because while I know it to be advice I would give someone else, I don’t believe it for myself. “You are not a bad person.” is much easier to say than “I am not a bad person.”


You have a right to love yourself

In class today one of my students explained how she helped someone else understand a math assignment. She ended her account with, “I am very kind.” She was instantly attacked by the other girls who thought her immodest. And that’s the moment when I found myself interrupting their conversation and telling them all: “Hey. Wait. She didn’t say anything wrong. I want you all to know something. You have a right to love yourself.”

And inside my head I was screaming You’re such a hypocrite!

Because I don’t really believe I have the right to love myself. Sometimes I do it anyway. And then I feel guilty. Self-love is ego, immodesty, a lack of humility. And I must be humble, modest, and sacrifice myself for others.

I’m about to open a sensitive topic for me. Religion. I have a lot to say about it, and there is a huge potential to be misunderstood. I want to be clear right now: I’m speaking only for myself. I am speaking only from my own experience. I am speaking to my current feelings. I intend no disrespect to anyone.

Here is what I grew up believing:

I am a sinner. I am the chief of sinners. I am unworthy of love or forgiveness, but somehow God (because He’s God) can love and forgive me anyway. I have to abase myself before Him and confess my sins – confess to being the lowest of the low and the dirtiest of the dirty. Because that is what I am. And only by the blood of Christ can I be cleansed in His eyes.

Religion is no longer a part of my life. And it has never really gone away either. For I am still the lowest of the low and the dirtiest of the dirty, only now without any chance of cleansing from external Forces. I am still unworthy of love and forgiveness, only now without a god to give it anyway.

But who am I to complain? I made my choices. I took that step away. Unloved and unlovable, I stand before you. Firm in the belief that it is wrong to love myself. Firm in the knowledge that the only way through this is to learn to love myself. Completely unable to reconcile.

And this is why, when I encounter something like “20 Awesome Side Effects Of Practicing Self-Love” I read it and squirm. Holding a mirror to myself, I see no beauty, no power, no light. At the same time I do not want any child in my charge to feel about themselves the way I do about myself. So I tell them, “You have a right to love yourself.” And I want them to believe it with all their hearts. I want to see them shine, uncorrupted by an upbringing of fear and darkness.