Red sparks fading in a woodpile, bugs glowing in the grass,
I am several years younger and my scars are fresh.
I’m glazed over, sticky with protective mesh, gleaming

like a glow bug that drifts by slow enough to catch
with two pink rolly hands cupped into a net, two
glistening eyeballs, bloodshot and catching light under the lamps,

two empty bottles and a plan. I’m armed with skill as sharp
as broken glass, prickle people who pick me up.
I sob for cash. Tight shoulders, tight smiles, light breaths.

We keep the bonfire burning and speak through brassy rasps
of class, we drink elixers and crawl through the grass
with plastic tubes and square nails and summer dress.

June marks the end of my sixth year teaching. While I’ve spent every one of these years building relationships with children, distributing materials, implementing lesson plans, and tending to a classroom environment, I’ve also been perpetually confounded by the imagery associated with my job title.

Everyone is subject to that dreaded question: “So, what do you do?” When I tell someone that I’m a teacher, I can see the vision unfold behind the inquirer’s eyes. They see me sitting at a desk in a room that I call my own, my name on the door, touting a benefits package and teacher salary. Yet despite the accuracy of all the minutiae – the actual emotional labor and circulation and instruction – I’ve always lacked the life blood of the position. The work space. The established security. The benefits. The salary.

I acquired a job in a charter school almost immediately after I graduated with my teaching certification. I was essentially hired to fill in the gaps regarding student needs in a low socioeconomic urban  environment, my official title being ELA Support Teacher. I both co-taught, pulled students out of class for small group sessions, and taught my own class, as well as extra classes over school breaks, Saturday school, and summer school. Despite the array of vital services I provided for the school, my contract did not place me on the teacher’s pay scale, and they elected to pay me per diem over the course of four years. They once told me it was because I didn’t have my own classroom and I traveled from class to class.

This limitation was not unique to my position. Even the classroom teachers allowed on the pay scale were still subject to annual contracts that required yearly renewal. No one was ever fired at the end of the year – administration just didn’t renew your contract. Fifty year old teachers with two decades of experience were subject to the same conditions as the new faces that popped up fresh out of college. Those on the pay scale were given decent benefits packages, but my options were much more expensive and took serious blows to my paychecks. I elected to go without.

In the face of this lack of job security, the majority of the teachers in the building looked to the public schools with big shining eyes. We sat together in our classrooms and ate up our lunches alongside our aspirations to win that secure, unionized teaching position in a large school district. The administration could sense our dreams of flight, further cementing the annual contracts and per diem work.

I was making enough to get by before the nature of the system shook me up enough that I swore I wouldn’t spend five years in the same position. I would take my youth and plunge back into school-age poverty. My partner went back to school, and I went so far back that I found myself doing something I hadn’t even really done as a teacher post-graduation: substitute teaching.

This was when I discovered that the majority of school districts around me utilized third party businesses to provide them with substitute teachers. In order for me to work at their schools, I needed to take the jobs through a third party system. I took assignments, and they took a finder’s fee. There are many different outsourcing agencies like this out there, though the most popular is likely Kelly Educational Staffing Services.

The language on Kelly’s website is telling of the situation.

We help our employees attain rewarding careers, districts achieve cost savings and operational efficiency, teachers maintain continuity of instruction, and students flourish from quality education.

So are rewarding careers truly attained through this agency, with their finder’s fees? I’ve spent the last two years looking around in the school district in which I work and I do not see Kelly employees moving into open positions. I see a lot of established teachers being shuffled around like chess pieces to optimize district funds, and the offspring of former teachers being hired. Kelly employees are far more likely to disappear from the campus, never to be seen again, than be hired into an opening.

Are these districts achieving “operational efficiency”? Well, most tellingly, the teacher vacancies are not being filled. The office secretaries complain of substitute shortages, and often I find myself in a room full of three different classes without teachers, becoming a true blue legally-required baby sitter. So no, this is clearly not an operationally efficient option for school districts.

As someone who’s been working on this front for a while now, I can assure you the reason for these shortages is that the pay is simply not high enough. When you really break down the per diem pay for these vacancy fills, it comes to about $10 an hour. This is true for what are called “long-term” positions which are ironically not long-term and require you to lesson plan and facilitate classroom instruction for 4 months for the same pay as those who do less work. It doesn’t take long for a person to figure out that they are likely to make $12 to $15 dollars an hour doing secretary or construction work elsewhere. For those with children, the pay from substituting teaching is even less feasible.

To put the cherry on the top of all this, in the past year bills have pushed me to do direct freelance work to supplement my income. I write promotional articles as a freelancing agent, sell my tutoring services, and I have picked up contracts teaching English to children overseas before.

The cringe-worthy fact is that substitute teaching only makes me about $15,000 a year. As time goes by, I am either forced to abandon ship for some career outside of teaching, or doggedly whore out my education and English degree for contracts. You can see which option I’ve chosen thus far.

This has been going on for six years, whilst continuing efforts to obtain that secure, unionized, stable classroom job. That carrot that hangs over my head. I am repeatedly hired over and over again into temporary piece-work to pay the bills, while watching others like me do the same – until that dream job opens and all candidates pounce on it with frenzied desperation. One person obtains the job, and hundreds of the rejected lower their heads and try again the following year.

I’ve job hunted in two cities in two different states, and about four to five positions open up in a single certification area every year regionally. And I’m talking full-time, join the union, retirement benefits, and health insurance positions only. Hundreds are looking.

With less and less permanent teaching jobs available on a yearly basis, the education system has been partially overtaken by what is essentially a gig economy. It took me a while to recognize this or understand how this economic model worked. My frustration built over the years, but I find that fellow teachers are bitterly compliant and hesitant to call it what it is. Or maybe they’re just lucky and aren’t exposed to it.

A cursory Google search of gig economy provides this definition: “A labor market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs.” I suppose if there’s an area to nitpick over, it’d be in the definition of “short-term.” Many probably envision the gig economy as singular freelance projects that last from a day, a week, to six months. Substitute teaching is certainly this. But I would like to extend short-term to include annual contracts. Charter school jobs are far more prevalent than positions in other schools, and obtaining a year of guaranteed work is not secure or stable for a family with children, a mortgage, multiple loan payments, or substantial health problems of any kind.

Basically, if you can only account for a year’s worth of work and income, you’re working a gig and the same limitations of the gig economy apply. There is no certainty for future employment, there is never a guarantee.

The limitations I have experienced are frustrating and plentiful. I have been offered benefits packages that are impartial or far more expensive than those offered to secured, full-time employees. I have also been denied insurance of any kind. Currently, despite working for Kelly for two years, they do not offer me anything other than a “supplemental” benefits package which is meant to pad my own individually purchased insurance. With buying my own health insurance being untenable, I receive Medicaid.

Work is unstable and inconsistent. Though I can usually find enough work to scrape together a paycheck due to my non-stop efforts, there are often months at a time where there is no work at a school available – especially during the summer.

Also, pay amounts to much less for the same work completed by those granted long-term, secure jobs. For instance, I taught classes but did not make the same for it as the teachers on the pay scale. In good times, I could do different gigs for the same employer throughout the year – but currently, I find myself working multiple gigs for many different clients every year.

Wrapped up in this system is a lack of accountability on both ends – from the employer and from the workers. No matter the high quality of the work I produce for an employer, they can dismiss me and any concerns I have with a lazy wave of their hand. I can also do the same to them, abandoning a gig to immediately pick up another, similarly low-paying project. There is no reason for either side to care.

Considering that Kelly’s involvement with substitute teaching and the charter school system are hardly new, I imagined I would find some sort of concrete criticism on this gig approach to education somewhere online. However, when I turned to search engines to discover how many other workers have felt frustrations similar to mine, the immediate results were largely in favor of this gig economy expansion. In general, there wasn’t a lot of critical conversation about the topic.

The first search result, from a website that talks about revolutionizing education, refers to the education sector’s regretfully slow adoption of the market. They encourage employers: adapt to this model quickly in order to gain access to a “greater pool of talent.” What they don’t mention is how cheaply that desperate talent can be purchased, as not to scare off the talent.

The site also paints employees in situations such as mine as saved from leaving the education sector forever through the option of gigs. They bemoan that “half of new teachers leave the classroom after five years, and many think that means they have to leave the education sector.” You don’t have to say goodbye to children and lessons forever, they say. You can do the exact same thing for less stable money.

Another site that offers “a bird’s-eye-view of the Education industry” also presents the situation as if it’s a good thing. They describe how “[m]any professors, adjunct and otherwise, have begun seeking outside sources of income as ways to supplement base salaries. These outside tasks have included everything from serving as Ph.D. or grant reviewers to freelance writing for mainstream outlets.” Again, the idea that freedom to work for supplemental income is somehow more worthwhile than a single job that pays a livable wage.

There were also the obligatory articles about preparing students for a gig economy, dismally accepting this system as a reality that faces the young, burgeoning generations – or, perhaps I should call them pools of talent.

On the bottom of the second page of search results, I finally found a blog that criticized the negative effects the gig economy had on education. The post decried how  “sequential, comprehensive curriculum is replaced by a series of unrelated, disconnected videos and ‘online modules,’ with no cohesiveness, content area articulation, or spiral curriculum organization.” While I can agree on the effect on curriculum to a certain extent, this criticism doesn’t factor in the effect that participation in such a disconnected workforce has on the individual. This what I find the most problematic.

The idea that incorporating a gig economy structure to education would result in freedom and active employment of previously untapped talents is laughable. The charter school’s yearly contracts did nothing but create a toxic, anxious environment. As the end of every school year loomed, we would whisper in passing around the copy machines, counting off on our fingers all of those we knew were most disliked by the administration. If we were cruel enough to take bets, we would have made off well. It was always obvious whose contracts would not be renewed based on how much shit the administrators had given them throughout the year, structured around pettiness and never issues of individual talent. Even if we hadn’t squared off with an administrator, there were always those who walked out of the office having been told their jobs were reduced to part time the following year. No one was ever safe, secure. Long-term plans were always at risk.

Substitute teaching with a third party contractor has turned me into a ghost. I wander through an established school culture and environment, never fully welcomed or embraced. When I first began, school secretaries wouldn’t even look at me, ticking off my name on a piece of paper to mark a vacancy filled. Even when I took an assignment that left me working at the exact same high school for two years, I was still never accepted into the school environment. Children would cheer when they saw me and treat me as a staple, but the administrators avoid eye contact, still believing I will surely vanish at any moment. I would spend months putting in organizational and emotional labor to build relationships with staff and students without ever being granted access to the school emails, or scheduling systems, or attendance systems, or even given a card that granted me access to the building. No matter my efforts or my talent, I was never anything more than a temporary fixture employed outside the district.

The result of annual contracts and temporary assignments has been a permanent state of job hunting for that stable, secure, unionized, benefit-giving job. The strain on my spirit – the complexes I’ve developed from this system and process – are also clearly not sustainable. The emotional drain and pitiful income compensation are not sustainable. Snatching the carrot on the end of the stick means being poised and ready for the perfect time, the perfect place, for years on end.

I’ve completed six years of this and I could easily see myself subject to an indefinite number of years ahead of me, at the whim of ever-shrinking school budgets and the luck of time and place. Or perhaps I’ll find myself back on annual contracts, or even land myself in a charter school that offers longer contracts – which I’ve heard exist but have never found.

There’s a large, ignored segment of the education sector – a word I will ruefully use, in light of the reality that this is all clearly a business. That segment is composed of people like me, who are raking in between an inconsistent 15k to 30k a year in the hopes of obtaining the carrot. Our numbers fluctuate as we graduate college and drop out of the sector in pursuit of more sustainable and secure jobs. I certainly won’t last much longer before taking the next office job that will help me pay my bills.

Do we want an education system subject to the same limitations and consequences of a gig economy? The reality is that your child, enrolled in elementary school, likely has a number of educated, talented professionals interacting with them throughout the day, applying band aids and praising their work, while in a perpetual state of stress, extracting measly compensation for even their hardest work.

It’s time to recognize this transient, pathetic, ignored portion of the education system and think about what this means for our society as a whole. The gig economy has entered our school buildings, demoralizing its workforce and developing detrimental practices that worsen school cultures, environments, and education as a whole, eroding at a system that relies heavily on the emotional well-being and time of its employees in a fundamental, society-building way.

Be conscious of what you imagine when some says they are a teacher. The odds are likely that they spend their days pushing around a cart to various classrooms, stacking paperwork on its tiers, while struggling to soothe the small crises of adolescence around them in between worries for their next paycheck. Not all teacher positions guarantee the basic benefits of most jobs, or even a stable paycheck the following month.

From the moment I was laid under the fluorescent lights in the hospital room, all proclaimed I was a girl. From the moment I was swathed in a pink blanket and cap, the expectations of girlhood were placed upon me, many years before my brain could compute girlhood and femininity.

I am 27 years old now and my femininity and womanhood have existed as a dynamic, oppressive cloud over my head, changing forms and redefining itself as societal forces shoved my self-concepts around, exerting their power upon me.

This month is also Women’s History Month. As it stands, I have two decades and seven years of history as a woman to share.

The experience is different for every single person who becomes a woman, their own ideas of what it means shifted and molded by the powers that be. I am interested to hear about everyone’s experience, whether they were born with female genitals or a female spirit, or some dynamic other identity that incorporates femininity.

Now, I share my own experience and all the memories and associations that define it.

After being told I was a little girl for over a decade, adolescence brought me the new, jarring idea that I didn’t look feminine. A particular memory rises to the surface: a summer day, standing on a pond’s dock in my friend’s backyard. I was twelve years old, and my friend Casey lounged on a rubber raft on the pond’s murky green water. Her older brother Zane and her brother’s friend sat on the edge of the dock and we exchanged snark, arguing about something that didn’t matter at all.

Zane’s friend ended the argument by zeroing in on my appearance with the examining precision of a doctor in a patient’s room. He pointed to the thick black hair on my legs, pond water forming trails between each strand. He pointed to my square face and my black eyebrows. He patted my broad shoulders.

“You don’t look like a girl. You look like a gorilla!”

I looked down at the brown drops of water trailing down my legs. Shame shot me through the heart; the observation seemed so accurate. My friend, lounging on the raft, wore a bikini and already had a curving shape that I wouldn’t even achieve until I was twenty. Her hair was bright blonde, her face a lovely oval that formed a delicate point with her soft chin. Her lashes were longer, her small shoulders sloped. The blonde fuzz on her legs was invisible.

But me, but me… it was true, I was square: my shoulders square, my frame square, my chin square. Nothing tapered. My hair was thick. I could easily pass for a boy, if I wanted.

His argument silenced me. The boys laughed triumphantly.

Just as easily as a boy could tear me down, unsex me, he could just as easily force my own sexuality upon me and make me feel vulnerable, exposed. This gesture was never anything I could reciprocate. I could fight back with words, but sexuality was always this dangerous last resort. Something I was never prepared for, thus leaving me defenseless and confused. No one had ever given me any guidance regarding what I experienced, and all I had at my disposal was “boys will be boys.”

This began at the same time the criticism of my appearance and femininity began, at twelve years old. The boys that liked me would approach me in the pool and wrap their half-naked bodies against me, forcing my friends to pry them off while I ran. They would trap me in the back of the bus and refuse to let me out until they touched my breasts, still small and developing. I would look to the other boys for help, begging them to help me get away, and they stammered to their friend, “Hey, man…. that’s… that’s not okay.” So timid it had no effect. The same boys I would turn to for help would also make jokes about chopping off my breasts and masturbating to my body. They were my friends.

We were adolescents. They approached this with the same air as a game. There was laughing—I laughed. But I was also the brunt of the joke. Me, and my body, which was in the same stroke prematurely being described as inadequate and masculine. My confusion was thick, the fragments of my identity developing and coalescing poorly, with no answers or direction. I was ashamed.

My body gave me many things I was taught to be ashamed about. When my mother spoke to me about periods, her words were quiet and she warned me against allowing men to see my disposed feminine hygiene products. She told me I had to dispose of it all in a separate garbage can, in another room, away from the eyes of the men in my family. Whatever other instructions she gave me, the message was clear: this is gross, shameful.

I internalized the message. I have a horrific memory of being eleven, walking through the mall with my friend Casey and her mother. While browsing through the stores, I felt my period arrive unexpectedly. We took a bathroom break and I saw that everything was far worse than usual, blood everywhere, dripping down my legs and soaking my pants. Every last fiber of my being was wracked with shame and mortification as I spooled out the toilet paper to make a make-shift pad, standing up and pulling my winter coat down below my bottom. I could have told my friend that I was in a dire situation, but she hadn’t begun her period yet. I should have told her mother, who was ushering us along and running errands, but my shame prevented me.

Instead, I endured and kept completely quiet. Her mother decided to go to the food court, decided to stop at the library. We picked up her brothers. Meanwhile, I stood stiff as a board, legs pressed tightly together, my stomach twisted inside out with sharp, corrosive shame. I spent hours soaked in blood because I was terrified to say anything. Looking back at the awful experience, I see now how easily I could have spoken to her mother after our bathroom break.

But shame is powerful. No one had ever told me what to do, or that this was normal.

Confusion continued to shape my experiences as I moved through my teenage years. My femininity was like an object I couldn’t quite stick a pin in. My male friends pushed it one way, then another; my girl friends pulled it vigorously in another direction; my parents told me I was too abrasive and opinionated for a girl; media and society pressed down from above.

When I was fourteen, I was sitting on the couch with a friend when I noticed her breasts for the first time. They were much more shapely than mine—they turned me on. I realized in a quick, horrifying moment that I was attracted to her body. I attempted to shove this realization out the window, but the seed was planted and these thoughts dogged me for the rest of my adolescence as I ran as fast away from them as I could.

I never escaped it.

When I was twenty, I hesitantly, timidly, tip-toeing, began to think of myself as bisexual. I began to do what I had always wanted to do and kissed girls. Even still, I could never say it confidently until well into my twenties. Again, shame and paranoia shadowed me.

At the age of sixteen, I cut off all my hair. I wanted to look like a boy. It was a subversive act—everyone was always asking me why I don’t date boys, I was confused, and I wanted my difference from the other girls to show. But my confidence only lasted as long as it took until all the hairs were cut from my head. After that, I was again vulnerable and subject to criticism. The other girls in my class asked me over and over again why I didn’t style my hair. It wasn’t enough to say I didn’t want to, and I was too ashamed to tell them I didn’t know anything about styling my hair. My mother had always been aloof about appearances and taught me nothing feminine except to hide my biological functions. I had no guidance, no base knowledge. I had no role models that were women. The other girls implied that this was wrong.

When I did finally strike confidence, I had an explosive oil well of it. I grew my hair out and experimented with my femininity. My shape began to morph, my body blooming later than most others’, while I was in college. My associations were so strong that I wasn’t able to experience confidence until I felt I looked like a woman. I began to take leadership positions and faced the onslaught of criticism with much more energy than I used to have, my shame at that point tucked away in the core of my being.

My mother was mortified by my outspokenness and structured the narrative that I was a bad, selfish person. I made enemies, and they called me aggressive, abrasive, and crazy (in a spectacular long adventure in gas-lighting that succeeded in convincing me and put me in the hospital). I felt as if I had moved from being acceptable and a vulnerable victim, to unacceptable and willing to defend myself.

With all of these trials came experience, and as the years wore on, my experience helped me sift through my identity and gather a coherent picture of myself, as a woman, that wasn’t like any of the images pushed on me, but something unique to myself. It took a long time, but I slowly gained the ability to make affirmative statements: I am bisexual, I am a woman, I am intelligent, I am feminine, I am masculine too, I am a leader.

And I am a role model.

I understand that a lot of my sense of femininity has come from my body—but that’s just my personal experience. Not every woman gets a period or has female sex organs. For me, these were identity-shaping factors, but I recognize everyone has their own experience.

I want everyone who is femme to discover their own womanhood and femininity on their own terms. It shouldn’t be forced upon them, it shouldn’t be explained to them. Every idea that was imposed on me just suppressed and confused me. It’s for each and every one of us to discover for ourselves.

My hope is that it won’t take as long for others as it took for me.

I have a mallet, I’m smashing my uterus into dust,
I’m dried up, I’m chili powder.

I’m a lounging courtesan in a painting, surface cracked,
The flakes expose a dry, dry canvas.

My circling curves glow pink under shadows, the red light ebbs
And grows from inside, amid hip joints,

My folds peeled back and pinned, pulmonary and porous.
My diagram drawn on the divan.

The door opens, she says my name, looks at her chart,
I’m there. How are you? Come in. I crack my limbs to sit
Rigid in the corner, on the couch’s edge, tapping my toes
On carpet. I don’t take off my coat, I don’t get comfortable.
So.
Her brow furrows. I’m sure she’s tired, importance drains
From my collected narratives, my hands die on my lap, my
Back curls forward, when I speak words fall from my lips,
Die in the same grave as my hands. I’m aware of my shape,
My face, pale, purple square, my eyes sitting big in my head.
I am a clogged bathtub, plug pulled yet the water won’t drain,
I am dirty bathwater instead of warm, delicious soup, a good girl
Who can solve my own problems and likes to waste your time.
I grow exhausted halfway through sentences, yet finish them
Some easy way, with a simple conclusion, an “I Don’t Know,”
I can envision a hundred better ways to say it, the solutions.
So.
She replies, then I know she misunderstood, I said it wrong,
What did I even say? It vanished back into the recesses
Of memory, buried under dinner plans and wondering when,
She spells back my own problem incorrectly, I don’t recognize
The words, were they even mine? Did I frame it that way?
In her face a muscle twitch, dread thrives in my brain’s clime
She is judging me. She thinks I look like a dried up dish rag,
She doesn’t understand why I make the same petulant claims
Every week, asking for suggestions for my mundane pains.
I envision escaping this stranger, summoned with dark magic,
I follow myself out of my own words to where I feel most safe,
Leaving her behind with her advice, the rephrasing of my lies.
I could have painted a picture but instead I scribbled figures,
Now we can outline my goals, she reads them back to me,
So I can hear my hollow words again in a stranger’s voice.
 

My reading goal last year was ridiculous, I admit. I wanted to read 50 books in the year 2016 in a burst of driven enthusiasm. I ended up reading 45. I want to be clear that this was only accomplished by choosing slimmer books with smaller page counts and I’ve gone in the complete opposite direction for this year’s goal, choosing a mere 10 books, in order to allow myself to read longer books at a slower pace.

There were many noteworthy books that I read in this challenge and I would like to share them and hopefully inspire a few people to pick up a title or two. I purchase the majority of my books on Amazon, seeking out used copies that cost between $1.00-7.00, meaning that with delivery the books tended to cost me between $5.00-15.00. It was very workable and I hope you can also locate these books for similarly cheap prices.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson 

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer and founder and executive director of the Eqjustmercyual Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization that provides legal representation to individuals who have been wrongly convicted of crimes, those who cannot afford representation, and those who have been denied a fair trial. He is especially focused on individuals who face the death penalty and young people with long, harsh sentences. In this book, he talks about his experiences working in the criminal justice system as a lawyer who takes these kinds of cases. Even more specifically, he looks at racial bias in the justice system and how it disproportionately harms the poor. The humane and empathetic look at criminals who suffer enormously in our current system makes this is a necessary read. Also, his overarching message is very important for those worrying about the upcoming four years: he acknowledges how defeated he has felt, working on a never-ending mountain of tough cases that appear hopeless, but states that rather than give up, he has found it essential to maintain hope — how useful hope is, that it must be nurtured, and that great good can be done if one can hold onto it.

Chronicles of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquezchronicles

This novel has the rich and vivid language found in Marquez’s other novels (other than his journalistic News of a Kidnapping) coupled with a narrative that is essentially a mystery story: how did a young man’s murder unfold? Or, more importantly, if everyone knew the murder was going to take place, why did no one stop it from happening? The narrative is fun, looking at the events of that day from numerous perspectives, an atmosphere of absurdity and whimsy surrounding the entire affair. Your mileage may vary, but this has become one of my favorite Marquez novels, and I’ve nearly read them all at this point. It’s also a rather quick read.

Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids by Nicholson Baker

This book was not largely well-received. This is reflected in its Goodsubstitutereads rating. I can understand where this comes from: to start, teachers are an ornery group, often talked over by people who don’t know anything about education, often pressed underneath the system’s feet. Also, this book has an older white man who is a writer and not a teacher documenting his every day while substitute teaching for a month in a school district. There’s a lot to disagree with in this set-up. However, speaking as someone who was a classroom teacher and has stepped back into a substitute teacher role after moving to a different state, his observations are often relevant and worth reading. Many times, they were not dissimilar to things I have thought. Although he is largely ignorant of the dynamics within education, I enjoyed reading this book and I think his perspective as an outsider is not without value. You may want to couple this book with a Jonathan Kozol book, however, or at least some book written by an actual educator.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemiquantumthief

This science-fiction novel is the first of three and I admit that I’ve only read this first part and have yet to make time for the other two. However, even without continuing with the storyline in the next installments, the society-building in Rajaniemi’s novel is fascinating. The plot might seem a little cheesy at first, with a Puss-in-Boots style thief that naturally outsmarts nearly everyone around him, but Rajaniemi makes it work well and the society he envisions on Mars, in the Moving City of Oubliette, is an amazing concoction of futuristic technology, complex government control, subcommunities and their function, and privacy and social engineering — it’s really unique. If you’re a fan of world building and science fiction, this is worth checking out.

The Art of Communicating by Thich Nhat Hanhhanh

Hanh is a Zen Master and this book is a quick and easy read thanks to his succinct and brief writing style. Hanh has many books on zen and compassion and this one focuses specifically on how to listen with compassion in order to communicate effectively. His message is simple and repetitive, but I found the simplicity of the message extremely applicable to my every day interactions with other people. He talks of writing, speaking and listening as a form of consumption, and as consuming unhealthy food inevitably harms us, consuming toxic speech also harms us. He presents compassion as a useful tool. He gives examples of how practicing compassionate speech (and compassionate listening) can work in different kinds of environments. I found myself re-reading certain useful passages months after completing it.

The Plague by Albert Camusplague

I picked up this book in the oppressive heat of last summer. My god, the environment in which I read this book made its contents weigh even more heavily upon my imagination. This book takes place in the African coastal city of Oran, which Camus also wrote about in his essay The Minotaur, during a period of plague that sweeps through the urban center. The story follows several characters, one a doctor, as they pass through the rise and fall of the plague, quarantined from their loved ones, experiencing profound suffering, ennui, entrapment, compassion, death and self-deceit. Camus tends to explore the same themes of death and ultimate meaning and absurdism in all his work, so those themes are present here as well.

 

We were too busy to shout “Happy New Year,” so the DJ calmly expressed his well-wishing as we clasped the arms of the people closest to us and pressed our bodies together. The second floor of the club, splattered with layer upon layer of graffiti that commemorated a thousand separate memories, crowded us together between several pillars on a flimsy dance floor that shuddered under our bouncing weight. Once midnight hit, our friend had been pounced by an old fling of hers whose eyes were wide and sparkling, rolling on molly, and they were entangled in the middle of the room in a kiss.

graffitipink.png

My partner and I had moved to this city inspired largely by her, but once we arrived her life fell apart. She lost her wife, she found someone new, and then she lost her too. The overwhelming density of her strife meant we had also lost her. She lived down the street but she was adrift in her endless preoccupations, not answering our messages and canceling plans. I was irritated, yet empathetic, and through my annoyance I continued to comment on all her photos and reach out to her, even if she didn’t respond.

And now, once she parted from her most recent lover and stumbled away, she came to our arms and we hugged her and told her we loved her and were inspired endlessly by her.

The three of us left the narrow old building that housed the club, standing on the sidewalk with goosebumps crawling up our arms and Uber vehicles crowding along the side of the road. Our friend’s tryst stood in the doorway, her body alight, her wild eyes trained on us, insisting we enter her vehicle and come downtown to Black Mass with her, dance away the rest of the night with her even though they would soon be unable to legally serve alcohol. We weren’t alive with uppers, however, and had multiple bottles worth of depressant drenching our organs, so we slid into a van to head back to our friend’s apartment.

Around the time I entered the Uber, my hair slick with sweat and my damp shirt slipping down over my shoulder, 200 miles away in another state, my father’s heart muscles struggled to receive a supply of oxygen. He laid down in bed, squeezing his eyes shut and thinking that if he died, at least the pain would stop.

But he woke up the next morning. He went to the hospital and they slithered a wire through his veins and put a stent into his heart with a balloon catheter.

My little brother contacted me the following morning, our lives so different yet his brain so much like mine, doing neurotic circles, a game show reel spun out of control and every prize actually a possible demise. He had recently had his first child and he held his newborn, contemplating worst case scenarios. When I called my father’s cell phone, my mother was a manic scribble as well.

My own neuroticism was firing off and so I recalled the progress I had made, the progress I had reflected on while drunk and silly in the graffiti’d club bathroom the night before, fluffing my hair in the mirror and staring into the drunken spiral of my eyes, observing the purple half-circles of perpetual illness standing out crass against my pale skin. I rubbed my face to bring some color and, as the New Year’s occasion called for, reflected on my personal progress of the past year.

I assume that others, during the whir of drama and chaos and inebriation, stare at themselves in the mirror and demand the truth. My soul procured what I most desired in that moment, which was pride — in myself. For what? What good had I done in this past year? I had barely made enough money to get by, many bills going unanswered and mostly unnoticed; I had worked pitifully small jobs and hardly lived up to my full potential, failing to inspire during job interviews; my relationship had completely fallen apart and I had managed to slap it back together with skill and grace. So much failure, but that last one — the latter conflict — had put me on a path of realization.

It hasn’t been that long since my last meltdown, my last time checking into a crisis service center and begging them to help me sleep. A year and a half, not even. Since then, I had put forth a considerable effort to help myself, or, to try to build up some defenses and thought patterns that would prevent myself from shutting down again. I read articles and books that were not necessarily always about self-help but had the sort of content I could use to infuse myself with good ways of thinking that I could practice.

I had practiced changing my thoughts. Swiveling away from the anxiety and neuroticism to more constructive ways of thinking. I flexed my brain cells, attempted to build a reflex toward reason. I read many articles on, simply, how to breathe. I felt silly reading them, but still — I caught myself not breathing when I stressed out. I found myself remembering to take good breaths.

I also found myself asking this question that had been repeated to me over and over again by therapists, who I had ignored: What can I take care of right now, in this moment? I began to seriously ask myself this. Often, the answer was nothing. Often, I found myself jotting down a time in which I would take action toward solving a problem, which wasn’t at that current moment. I had trained myself into a habit. This question had been meaningless to me for so long, until I managed to prescribe it with my own personal, intimate meaning of self-improvement. Maybe one day it will be meaningless again to me and I will need to find a new question to infuse with intimate personal power.

Standing in the club bathroom, surrounded by graffiti about hot, wet pussy and colorful tags, I stared myself down and acknowledged that a year had passed and the work I had put into myself was noteworthy and fruitful. Though continuously plagued with insecurity, I felt pride bubbling up in my chest. A sense that these thoughts, habits, friendships, myself… were not worthless.

I could hold my pettiness in my hand and then gently swat it away, just like any normal, pained human being. After this continued reflection of the night before, I held my phone in my hand, thinking of the neurotic triad of my mother, brother and myself. We had all influenced each other, touched by conflicts and trauma that traced far back into the past. It would be a long story to tell, if I were ever so inclined to write it down, but I knew where my anxiety came from. I knew who I shared it with. I knew, also, that I was capable of handling anything, that I had proven that to myself.

I spoke to my dad after speaking with them. After his dazzling heroism had worn off years ago, I had spent the majority of my adult life being angry with him, for his bad politics and prejudices. But this evaporated into a petty cloud of smoke in the conversation in which he told me his thoughts about believing that he was going to die.

Only one memory pushed to the forefront of my mind then. I was five, vulnerably small in my large bedroom, my bed pushed up against the window over the driveway and the apple tree so I could see the comings and goings of the outside world instead of the tall shadows of my cavernous room. I lay in bed with my nose pressed up against the windowpane and watched my dad’s car crunch up the driveway to rest under the tree. I was supposed to be sleeping, so I pulled the covers up around myself and pretended. My dad came up the stairs and set something next to my head, kneeling over me for a minute before leaving.

When he was gone, I rolled over. There was a book. He had brought me a book.

My entire childhood, my dad gave me books. It is because of him that I love to read. It wasn’t something that just happened, I didn’t just find books and devour them. He summarized books for me, sparking my interest, then put them in my hands. This became an integral part of my identity, leading me up to the point where I am today.

In the midst of conflict, anxiety, despair, I have managed to hold the good in my hand and ruminate over it with a calm heart. I have curled into myself in the bathroom, my chest crushed and holding back sobs that threatened to rip me apart, and I stood up afterward and recovered. This did not just happen. I wasn’t able to immediately use my legs properly after being shoved so forcefully to the ground.

But with effort, it happened.

I mull over these new realizations, habits, and histories on my drive into work, now that I’m working consistently again every day, driving a half hour to a school that offers me the best experience possible, even if without insurance benefits. I think about myself, about the politics blasting from my speakers and shaking my flimsy car; I think about the friends who both push and pull, disappear under their grief only to hold me tightly in an embrace the next time we meet. The patience I forward to my friends is worth it, despite the frustrations.

January has brought cold, icy rain that slicks up the roads and makes everything gray. I swish along the hissing water on the highway every morning, the sky blanketed with black clouds, navigating myself using the golden halo from the street lamps overhead. The sound and smell of constant winter rain is the backdrop to my thoughts on this place inside myself I’ve slowly discovered, this infinite ocean of patience that swells and moves, that is colored by my mood and kept undisturbed and endless through simple and sheer willpower. Underneath the anxiety bursts, the paranoia, the self-doubt and insecurity, it’s still there. Underneath the troublesome clouds of despair, it’s there. It’s somewhere at my center, infinite in all directions.

Acknowledging its presence doesn’t make the chemicals in my brain flux correctly however. This ocean isn’t a panacea, it’s just there and accessible. I still have my bad habits, such as washing my poor brain with all sorts of drugs to modulate my experience.

On Friday, one of the few friends I’ve made in this city returned from Saudi Arabia — having visited her family over her school’s break — and she returned wanting to do two things for her upcoming birthday. She wanted to go to her first concert ever and she wanted to take LSD while she did it. We had taken acid together before after a tryst we had the previous year, so there was nothing objectionable about this situation. I was hoping the acid could help me clear some of the depressive gunk in my brain, something that was far more difficult to rid with healthy thought patterns because it just calcified to my personality and ebbed and rose in mass throughout the month.

After the show, I burst out into the night, holding her and my partner in an embrace and breathing in cold air and tasting it, tasting the colors of the lights, tasting red and blue on my tongue. The following day, sunshine radiated through my brain and the shadows disappeared. But my energy was zapped and my heart was beating too fast.

Another week begins, my mood is high though I’m exhausted and no amount of sleep after Friday has been good enough. I want to be wide awake and I want to sleep forever. I caught myself not breathing this morning, my heart thudding in my chest, holding my breath for no reason other than anxiety rearing its face at the change in my daily schedule, however small. I’m struggling at both being awake and receiving the appropriate amount of sleep, knowing that mixed up in my desires is the need for balance in order to actively maintain good habits.

And underneath this flux of daily routines, too much sleep or not enough, distant friends and needy friends, the eternal complications of love, unexpected troubles and matters of life and death, I am aware of that infinite ocean of patience. I may lose sight of it again one day, but it’s there. It’s always there.

SheldUnbreakable

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