#BlogElul 17-29: Awaken, Ask, Speak, Fill, Love, End, Begin, Hope, Change, Create, Bless, Give, Return

(for the Jewish month of Elul, which happens to coincide pretty perfectly with the month of September this year, I’m going to try to blog once a day about one of the themes for the month to prepare for the upcoming Yamim Nora’im or High Holy Days. I will most likely blog in the evenings, so it will technically already be the next day in the Hebrew calendar, but I’m really going to try to keep up with this! you can pop on over to originator Rabbi Phyllis Sommer’s blog for more details about this project.)

it’s been a hot minute—these after-work/weekend training meetings are really exciting and useful but they’re also exhausting because they mean I’m working almost 13-hour days—but I want to make sure that I share my thoughts for the second half or so of this month.

awaken. today was the first day students and I really started digging deep into what identity means and how it is constructed—with the hope that it has awakened their curiosity about it since we will be spending the rest of the quarter talking about culture and identity. as we spoke about our first media piece on this topic, I could just about see the wheels turning for some students. it made me realize that to be awake is not just to be conscious and moving through the world—it is to be present in the moments we are living and truly experiencing the world with the wonder it deserves.

ask. ah, to ask. ask and ye shall receive, they say, and yet it is so difficult to ask for help, to request the accommodations we might need, to inquire about different paths we could take even when we’re all headed in the same direction. today, as we discussed the creation narratives from Genesis in class, I found myself asking questions that I knew might be a little above them—and then working with them to co-generate answers—and I realized that, sometimes, the point is not so much the answer to the question as it is being able to know what to ask.

speak. now this is a word that I use often at work because we have speaking and listening competencies that students must meet—but that is not the first thing that came to mind. instead, I immediately thought of Laurie Halse Anderson’s incredible and life-changing book of the same name. it was the first book I ever taught to a class—I did it during student teaching—and I’d first read it in college. it gave me the words to talk about my own experience with assault when I was around Melinda’s age, and it helped me to think about healing in a way that allowed for hope. in a lot of ways, seeing as I was deeply suicidal the following semester and the book was how I began talking about my assault in therapy, I truly think speak saved my life—and empowered me to help others find their voices.

fill. I often talk about this in the context of my heart being full, and that is absolutely where I went with it last Friday. so many students succeeded in their assessments during that week, to the point where I was able to adjust the pace a little bit and challenge them more—and it really filled my cup, as it were. throughout this season, things have been difficult and emotionally exhausting—but there has also been so much beauty to be grateful for. moving forward, I think I’m going to make filling my cup a goal for the new (Jewish) year so that I am more intentional about taking time to appreciate the beautiful things all the time, not just when I’m feeling good and it’s easy to be grateful.

love. love is such a big word for my culture that we have two words for it at varying intensities—querer and amar. it is difficult to explain the difference to people sometimes because it is so situational and, I think, personal. for example, many people say things like “querer is for your friends and amar is for your family and significant others”—but what about those of us who have complicated relationships with our family? whose friends have become our family? who love intensely and deeply and don’t believe in having a word that you keep well-guarded and only deploy in extra-special occasions? perhaps it’s because of this distinction in Spanish that the word love in English seems so light to me that I use it so liberally—or perhaps it’s because it is so important to me to show and feel love that I am more willing to sprinkle it everywhere. my goal moving forward will be to sprinkle some of that love on myself.

end. the finality of this word is so scary—especially for those of us who are afraid of change—but I always think of my incredibly wise grandma’s words, cuando uno acaba, otro empieza: when one ends, another begins. and so as I “inherited” a tutoring student that is new to me but is someone else’s former student, I thought about how their time together ended but ours began—and then I thought about how this season truly is that ouroboros, from the end of a year to the beginning of the next… and laughed because the next word is begin.

begin. as you may remember, I began our journey on this blog on the first day of this calendar year because I feel very strongly about beginning on auspicious days. (relatedly, I’m planning to do some revisiting/reflecting as we go into the new Jewish year.) beginnings can be very scary—everything is new and we know I don’t do well with change!—but I also like to think of them as opportunities. struggling with a habit? start over on a beginning day! want to re-energize your Jewish practice? start next Rosh Chodesh! (she says, looking at the mirror.) taking a beginning as a way to start doing something you have wanted to do is a way to generate some enthusiasm—and to make that newness less scary.

hope. I can’t think of this word without thinking about Obama’s 2004 DNC keynote speech in which he talks about “the audacity of hope”—perhaps because I used to teach it, but I think perhaps because right now hoping feels like a truly audacious—and borderline revolutionary—act. at this point in my life, I feel like I am truly so emotionally exhausted on so many levels that I cannot even imagine letting myself hope just to end up disappointed again. even the hopes that I am actually working towards are couched in such conditional language—”if all goes well, God willing, I should be working on…”—that it almost feels like I am still stopping myself from hoping. a part of that is this issue with follow-through that I often experience—thanks, ADHD!—so I am trying to not set myself up for disappointment or for letting anyone else down. moving forward, I think I’m going to try and stop talking myself out of hoping and just… feel that hope and see where it goes.

change. one of the key words for teaching is flexibility so, in that sense, change is an absolute constant for us. I teach the same course four times a day and I don’t do things twice exactly the same way—although I do often use the same scripted jokes because those are for me, not them—and the change is always in response to what students need. I find that it’s that way for me often—change is so much easier (as is motivation in general) when I’m doing it for someone other than myself. but if there’s something that I’ve really been trying to work on for this season is being more in tune with myself and knowing that it’s okay to do things for myself. selfish is not a dirty word unless it comes to the detriment of others. it’s okay to pick me. moving forward, I want to remember those affirmations.

create. it wasn’t until halfway through Thursday the 26th that I realized that I had prepared an assignment for my students that would have us all create something. based on the work of Dr. José Medina, my bilingual students and I were beginning to work on our testimonios—starting with #IKnowMyFullName. we created slides with images of ourselves and then explored our family history via our names and the journey through which we acquired our names. I was nervous about presenting this idea to students, but most of them were actually really excited to do this and immediately asked about the other parts of our testimonios that I was hoping for us to do. I realized then that giving them an opportunity to create something where they could celebrate their culture and their names was something that they had not really done much of before—and getting to do it for them reminded me that I should also do it for me and celebrate myself and my own journey.

bless. whenever I hear this word, I think about the very casual way that we use it in English. the offhand bless you when someone sneezes, or the way people now use #blessed ironically. then I think about the way we use it in Spanish, especially back home—the way that I ask my grandmother for her bendición, her blessing, whenever I begin/end our calls or visits. I think also about the way in which we use it in Judaism when we talk about people’s memories being blessings. this word means so many different things to so many people, I think, from the mundane to the profound, and I want to be more careful about giving it the weight that I think it deserves. I want to make sure I am more intentional about recognizing things that are blessings, in disguise or not, and make sure that I am taking time to be grateful.

give. yesterday I got to give one of the most valuable things, in my estimation—some time. I spent the day with some colleagues—some who are now friends—and we talked about our profession and we made plans to support our student teachers and we just supported each other emotionally throughout. even though there was work being done, I actually did find it a restful Shabbat because it didn’t necessarily feel like work; it wasn’t toil or labor but rather activities that I enjoyed engaging in. I also realized that I was giving myself a break and not focusing on being perfect, and that was a nice change of pace.

return. today I return—to blogging, to breathing, and soon also to grad school (after Yom Kippur, anyway). after being so reflective for the past month, I think a part of me is just really emotionally exhausted—but I did enjoy the additional thoughtfulness with which I found myself approaching things, and I think I am going to try to do more of the moving forward. I guess what I’ve learned the most is that, even when we return to something, the leaving made us change so we can return to the place but not the time or the person we were then. I might be returning to some of my old habits, but the things I have tried have left their mark—so I’m not returning to being the same person.

thanks for going on this journey with me!

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