Cooking as Stress Release

When I was in grad school, I used to bake bread during finals week. It was a way of handling my stress. These days when I’m stressed, I’ll find myself exploring cookbooks and Pinterest looking for new recipes to find and ways to let off steam culinarily. In all honesty, that is a large part of the origin of the Harry Potter birthday cakes and my current “Baking with the Saints” project.

I was thinking about this as I made Draco Malfoy’s birthday cake. Now, I’m not a big fan of Draco; he isn’t The Worst Person Ever, but he’s not exactly my kinda guy. Regardless, I make the man a birthday cake every year. Now, I’ll admit that part of it is because I like making “my father will be hearing about this” jokes. But that’s not all of it. I don’t just make this cake because I want to make jokes about Draco and Lucius.

Far more of it comes from the peace of mind that I draw from putting the cake together. For me, there’s something calming about mixing butter and eggs and sugar (and the other ingredients) in a bowl and watching it all come together. I love see the ingredients come together and change into something new. It’s almost magical.

At the end of the school year, there are countless little unpredictable factors in my day. But when I come home at the end of the day, I know that if I mix a cup of butter (or dairy-free butter) and a cup of sugar in my KitchenAid, it will cream. And then if I add more ingredients to that, it will form a stable cake batter. Because I’ve been baking for a while, I know that my oven and dairy-free butter mean that I’ll need to adjust baking times on certain recipes. Those are predictable things. I know what I’m going to get as an end result.

I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I know that I find that uncertainty is one of my biggest sources of stress. I don’t like when I don’t know what is coming next. I think that I’m pretty normal in that I like to know what’s coming next. I’m not a huge fan of surprises or uncertainty. I like predictability. I like knowing that if you firmly mix up two cups of butter they’ll soften and loosen into a crucial part of a beautiful brioche.

Baking also allows me to play and explore. Over the past two years, my Great British Bake-Off obsession has led me to try numerous new experiments in the kitchen. I never would have tried to make a brioche filled with mushrooms and spinach or one filled with basil if I hadn’t been inspired by GBBO. It’s safe exploration, but it’s exploration nonetheless. I rarely make anything that I’m not sure won’t work out at least reasonably well. (The batch of chili that I put a fruity beer into about five years ago is an outlier. That was awful.) But even when I’m not sure exactly how things will turn out, my previous experiences in the kitchen give me some assurance that things will work out for me.

There is a level of predictability in the kitchen that I don’t often find in stressful season of my life. For a long time, I didn’t know if or when my car would ever get fixed. I don’t know if or when I’ll ever get married. My job is great, but I’m tired and run-down at this point in the year. All of those areas contain a level of unpredictability. But I know that warm (but not HOT) water will activate yeast and butter can slacken and I can bake beautiful things. And some days…those are a few of the only truths that keep me from totally losing my mind.

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Convenience and Experience

I was recently talking to my roommate about the difference between a friend of ours and myself. The friend and I have both obtained new cars in the past few months. She bought hers from Carvana; I went to a car dealership. We were both eminently satisfied with our method of car purchase. Similarly, this friend prefers to have her groceries delivered; generally speaking, I really like going to the grocery store. I don’t object to my friend’s method of getting things, and she doesn’t have a problem with mine. The question that I found myself pondering is why we prefer these different things.

My roommate’s comment was that our friend likes the convenience of not going to the grocery store or the car dealership while I like the experience of being in those places and physically interacting with people and things prior to purchase. Now, my friend has a busy life, and I can see why she values convenience. There are also situations in which I actively seek out convenience. (Hello, Amazon Prime purchases of whiteboard markers!) However, my personal preference is to seek out experiences rather than finding the most convenient way of doing things.

Ultimately, this is a matter of preference. There are no rules that say that one way is better than the other. And I know that there are situations in which my friend would choose experience over convenience and I would choose convenience over experience. It’s a spectrum. There are times when you need to choose convenience over one experience so as to allow you to have another experience. There are experiences that some enjoy (me in the produce department) that would frustrate others. Some people don’t feel an intrinsic need to sniff and squeeze every piece of fruit they buy or do an in-depth examination of 94% of the onions in the bin before choosing one. That’s a preference.

To me, the important thing is that we’re not allowing life to pass us by. I get something out of interacting with the grocery store. (A couple of weeks ago I got a new strawberry plant out of it.) I’m the kind of person who thinks that going to Target is fun. (Going to Trader Joe’s is an honest-to-God adventure in my book.) It adds something to my life. But not everyone feels that way. Not everyone enjoys those experiences. Not everyone has time in their daily lives for those experiences. Do you think that a working mom has time to wander around Trader Joe’s or Target? I work full-time but have no children, and I have to plan those things into my life carefully. Different experiences have different values in different stages of life. A stay-at-home mom would not enjoy scrolling through Teachers Pay Teachers the way that I do.

Enjoying experiences looks different for different people. Convenience looks different for different people. The important thing is to figure out for yourself what really matters for you. What conveniences do you need? If going to the grocery store is just going to drive you out of your mind but a local delivery service works for your lifestyle and budget, then go for it. What experiences make you feel more yourself? If spending thirty minutes in a peony garden or snuggling a friend’s baby is going to calm you down at a stressful point in the year, do it. If getting a manicure will help you hold on to your sanity, make it happen. Then, prioritize those things. Make sure that you’re able to fit those things into your life. There is enough stress in your daily life. Don’t put more stress in your life than you need to. Find the experiences that make your life flow more smoothly and peacefully. Find the convenience that keeps you from losing your cool. Don’t force yourself to do things that will only make your life harder than it needs to be.

It’s That Time Again

On a recent morning, I texted my best friend (who is not a teacher) and told her that it was now the time of year where I had no energy to make plans. I explained that I’m tired and stressed. On that same morning, my facebook “On This Day” feature informed me that last year, I’d announced that while I love my job and my students…my students and I need a break from one another.

Then I began working on my lesson plans for the next week. I opened the file for one of my groups, changed the dates at the top, and saved it for the next week. Then I looked at the lesson sections so I could start writing plans. But then I discovered that I’d already written my Week 34 plans for that group. I just hadn’t adjusted the dates from Week 33 to Week 34, and I’d saved it in the Week 33 file, again.

It’s that time of year. I’m tired. The kids are tired. They want it to be summer. I want to sleep. I’m also getting really passionate about the idea of sleeping in past 5am. The other day, I admitted to a friend of mine that I know that six hours and forty-five minutes of sleep is unhealthy, but somehow I think that I can survive on it.

I’ve started telling myself “You can do anything for [x number of] days.” I don’t count weekends because I can’t handle thinking about it. When kids ask me how many days are left in the school year, I don’t tell them; I tell them either that I don’t know or I’m not sure.

I think that a big part of the problem is that the kids know that the end is nigh. They know that they’re about to get more than two months off. They want a break. They think that they need or deserve a break. They’re like kids before Christmas. They know that something big and exciting is coming. It’s hard to fault them for their excitement.

As a teacher, it’s important to remember that. It’s also important to remember that we love our students. We may not always appreciate their behavior, but we love them. We want what is best for them. There are definitely days when it’s hard to remember that these hyper children are the same kiddos who worked hard in October, but these are our children. We do love them in spite of their shortened attention spans and random (inappropriately timed) commentary about their summer plans.

This time of the year is insanely hard for teachers. Mercifully, we are surrounded by our colleagues who are all equally tired and run-down. We know that the end will come. But we also need patience from those around us…because oh Lord are we tired.

Would you like a dinner guest?

A few months ago, one of my friends was venting to me about how married couples never invite her (or other unmarried folks) over for dinner. She’s in her early thirties and single. She’s not the world’s biggest fan of eating dinner by herself. But she feels (and I completely understand this) like married couples aren’t really into inviting unmarried folks over for dinner. As she understands it, it’s one thing to have a couple or family over, but she doesn’t see couples or families having single folks over very often.

We discussed why this might be. I suspect that it’s one of two things. Either it doesn’t occur to families to invite single folks over for dinner, or they don’t do it because they think that it would be uncomfortable. Perhaps they’re afraid of the awkwardness of unpaired guest.

Here’s the thing. It might well be uncomfortable. Maybe you don’t know what to talk to a single person about. Maybe you’re not comfortable talking to someone whose life experience isn’t like yours. Maybe you’re afraid that they’ll judge the imperfections of your life. Maybe you think that they’re too busy to fit you into their life. Maybe you think that they won’t like your cooking or they’ll think your kids are annoying. Maybe you’re afraid that they’ll just ramble about their cats and knitting the entire time that they’re at the table.

(True confession: if you have me over for dinner, I promise that I will not mention my cats or my knitting unless you bring those topics up.)

But here’s the thing. You don’t know until you try. You don’t know that it will be awkward, and honestly, what’s wrong with a little awkward here and there anyway? Single people like to eat. They like companionship. They might like you; if they’re your friends, they probably do. Sure, a single woman doesn’t come with a ready-made conversation partner for your husband, but men can talk to women too.

Last fall, I was hanging out with a friend at a social event. After the event, she and her husband invited me to come over and watch a football game at their house. It would just be the two of them and me. I like them. I like football. I went. Was it awkward? No. We sat around, had a beer, and watched a football game. We talked about football. We talked about my planned trip to London. We talked about my friend’s and my shared profession. We talked about kids we know and love. We talked about the fact that I was slowly but surely coming to realize that my crush on Tom Hiddleston had NOT died when he dated Taylor Swift but had just gone into hibernation. Now I wouldn’t talk to all of my friends’ husbands about my Hiddlescrush, but this guy, he can handle it. He can laugh at with me as I realize that tall and nerdy is, in fact, my type.

I really appreciate married couples who can do that. They just integrated me into their evening. It wasn’t a big deal for them. I was free; they were free. They were going to watch a football game; I like football. There’s a plan for an evening right there. Make some popcorn; grab some beer out of the fridge. Done and dusted.

My obsession with The Great British Bake-Off began from something similar. Another friend and her husband invited me over for dinner. After dinner, her husband was looking for a movie on Netflix when he remembered that I’m an Anglophile who loves to bake. Once he’d determined that I’d never seen the show before, he decided that we were going to watch it together. It was simple. He found an activity that we could all enjoy and engaged our interests. He even took the time to consider things that he knows that I love.

Single people are people. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say that. Yes, we don’t come with ready-made dinner partners. But we’re people who like conversation and people and food. Many of us are okay with having our conversations interrupted by your children. We’ll even bring a salad or side if you’d like us to. We love you; that’s why you’re our friends. We want to be engaged in your lives.

So please invite my friend over for dinner. She eats alone at the kitchen counter. (I don’t; the table, the couch, and my bed are much better options.) And who knows? You might find that you really enjoy spending time with your single friends.

Stop Licking the Table

I’d like to tell you that, as a childless woman, I’ve never said that. I’d also love to tell you that I’ve never stood in front of a room full of children, clicked my heels together, and said “There’s no place like home” three times. I’d love to tell you that every day is perfect and smooth and easy.

But that’d be lying, and this is one post in which I really want to be honest.

It’s National Teacher Appreciation Week, and I’m a teacher. I’m proud to be a teacher. But I also know that my job is hard and my profession undervalued. So…I’m going to tell you a story. It’s my story.

I was three the first time that I played school. I used to haul all of my dolls and stuffed animals into the living room or basement and play school. The piano bench was my desk. The chalkboard was…well, that’d better be obvious.

By the time I got to college, I was looking into nursing as a career. But somehow, I found my way back to that three year old in the living room. I became a teacher. All that I wanted was to be a high school English teacher in a Catholic high school. It was my dream. I was going to teach for a few years, marry some amazing Catholic guy, and become a stay-at-home mom to my five Catholic kids.

I graduated from college, and I got my dream job. I got a job teaching English at a Catholic high school. It was hard. It was stressful. It was amazing. I loved it. I had good students and difficult-to-love students. I had good days and bad days. But I loved my job. I had supportive coworkers. I had good relationships with students. One of the best moments of my career came at the beginning of my second year teaching. A student who’d given me a really hard time my first year came up to me on the first day of my second year and apologized for his behavior the previous year. He told me that he’d been a jerk and he was sorry.

(I almost cried.)

At the end of my second year teaching, I found out that I couldn’t go back to that job. Enrollment had dropped, and I was no longer necessary. I was broken-hearted. I cried a lot. I applied for many, many jobs.

And I ended up working for a year as a long-term sub for three different English language teachers. I fell in love with the world of EL. I started working on a masters degree in the field. I knew that my dreams were changing, and this was the world in which I wanted to spend the rest of my life. The dreams of being a high school English teacher and eventually stay-at-home mom were fading from my mind. I wanted to be a building EL teacher.

But at the end of the school year, I had to find another job. Cue another summer of job searching and worrying and hoping and praying.

Fall began with a job teaching English, religion, and Spanish at a small Catholic school. I didn’t love it. It was hard in a way that nothing else had ever been hard for me. Parents were difficult. Students were hard. I regularly considered getting up, walking out of the classroom, and just leaving forever because I couldn’t handle it. My coworkers did nothing but complain. My boss was unsupportive.

Fed up with the stress and seeming black hole in which I felt I was trapped, I quit my job at the beginning of spring break. I felt like I was losing control of my life and I just couldn’t handle it anymore. Being a teacher was too much, and I didn’t want to do it anymore. My childhood dreams were bashed to pieces. No one had prepared me for what to do when your dreams were a nightmare. No one had prepared me for the day when I’d cry at work or the day when the thought of going to work would make me throw up. No one had prepared me for the day when my job would make me hate my life.

I was burned out.

I wanted out of the profession. According to stats from 2016, 8 percent of teachers leave the profession every year. It’s the stress and lack of remuneration that does them in. One of my current colleagues talks about a former coworker of hers who had to leave teaching because he couldn’t support his family on a teacher’s salary anymore. I was fully prepared to part of that statistic for 2016. I wanted a new job, a job where I’d be less stressed and more supported by the people around me.

I didn’t want to be a teacher anymore.

I found a job outside the profession. I didn’t plan on staying there forever, but it was a place to work, a place to be. I had a steady paycheck and a supportive boss. My boss was a former teacher, and I worked with plenty of people who knew teachers who’d left the field. I learned that it’s better to leave a place in which you’re unhappy than stay there and try to force your dreams to come true.

And then one phone call hauled me back into the world of teaching. Eighteen months earlier, I’d interviewed for a job as a school EL teacher but hadn’t gotten the job due to some certification complications. The school wanted to interview me again. I was less than a year from completing my master’s degree, and they were pretty sure that they could hire me. They could, and they did.

I’m in my second year here, and I love it. Why do I love it? I get to work with great kids. (I’m one of those people who think that EL students are the best kiddos ever.) I have amazing coworkers. My bosses are genuinely good people. Instead of working with people who only complain about the kids, I work with people who work together to help students. Instead of working for someone who is just looking for a chance to throw me under the bus, I work for someone who tries to help me. I get to work for someone who encouraged me to take a day off when I was in a car accident, who found me a more comfortable chair for my back after that accident, and who actively expresses concern about their employees’ well-being.

Teachers aren’t perfect. Education isn’t perfect. It’s hard. It isn’t what I dreamed of when I was three. When I work with a group of students, I’m faced not only by the content at hand but also the concerns that surround these children. Did he eat breakfast? How is her parents’ divorce impacting her? These things impact how a student learns. I have to face not only curriculum but also personal baggage. And the more kiddos I have in a group, the more baggage I face; if that’s true of a teacher who works with small groups, imagine how that feels and looks in a classroom with thirty (or more) students.

I have days where I spend half of my time trying to help students move past whatever’s bothering them. It is really hard to work with a kid who has been up since six or seven in the morning and didn’t eat breakfast that morning. This morning, one of my kids missed his breakfast. It’s unusual for him, but it happened. It is (understandably) really hard to focus when you’re hungry. Most teachers are familiar with the idea that kids who know that they’re are loved at home come to school to learn…and kids who don’t know that they’re loved at home come to school to be loved.

Teachers are important. Our kids are facing a world that is more complex than the one in which I grew up. They need good teachers who will fight for them and who will love them no matter what. They need teachers who will teach them to be both smart and wise.

Teaching can be exhausting. I know that I’m not the only teacher who has run up against frustration or burnout. The hours are rough-and never tell me that summer makes up for it; it doesn’t. The pay is hard; please ask West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona if you doubt me. I love the kids I work with, but good lord, I say so many things that I never thought I’d ever have to say. (Have you ever tried to explain to a sensory seeking child that if he wants to stroke your fingernails he has to use hand sanitizer first?) I’m not looking for sympathy or pity. What I want is respect for my profession. That’s the hardest part. Try doing something that is damn near impossible…and knowing that so many people don’t respect you for it, don’t think that you deserve a fair wage, think that you should be assessed based on test results from one or two mornings in May, and think that they know how to do your job better than you do.

I may get to play with playdough and Legos at work, but that’s rare. Far more often, my job is hugging heartbroken kids, trying to find the right response to things like “my cousin is in a coma” or “my dad has to go to court again tomorrow,” and trying to find ways to work with prepubescent hormones. It’s a hard job. The rewards come in hugs and smiles far more than in paychecks. You live knowing that you may never see the fruit of your work. Most days, you just want to go home knowing that you didn’t waste your time. And yeah, it’d be nice to know that you’re respected.

I Don’t Want to Be Famous

(This is the result of some things I’ve been pondering over the course of the school year as a result of conversations that I’ve had with my students.)

I was talking to a group of third graders about what they want out of life recently. One of them told me that they wanted to be rich and famous. We talked about what they wanted, and I had to make a confession.

I don’t want to be rich. I don’t want to be famous.

We talked a bit about how I don’t want some of the burdens (mental, practical, or otherwise) that come with wealth. I didn’t get super in depth about it because, well, they’re nine. We don’t need to have an in-depth conversation of wealth or taxes or investment portfolios.

But I decided to elaborate about the fame thing. We live in a fame-obsessed culture, and many of my students talk about wanting to be famous. I wanted to have a brief conversation about why I DON’T want to be famous.

I pulled up this picture on my phone.

As I understand it, this picture was taken when Chris Pine had gotten off a transatlantic flight. Now, Chris Pine is a naturally above average person. However, in my experience, no one looks fabulous when they’ve just gotten off a twelve-hour (or however long) flight. Heck, I can think of two very specific instances in which I probably looked like sheer hell after getting off of a two or three hour flight. (Thanks, motion sickness and rocky landings!)

One thing that I genuinely enjoy about the pleasant anonymity of my life is the fact that when I get off of an airplane (having perhaps just thrown up) no one is trying to take my picture. I can get myself back together and collect my luggage without strangers trying to take my photo and then post said photo all over the internet. It might be nice to jump lines or be first anywhere I go. But to have that sort of attention focused on me all the time? Oh hell no. Being photographed when I go to get coffee or arrive at an airport? No. Thank. You. Every Chipotle burrito I eat becomes a pregnancy rumor? Uh, let’s skip that.

I don’t want to be famous. As I told my third graders, I don’t want to have people obsessing over every aspect of my life. I told them the story of the married writer who interviewed Tom Hiddleston…and then found photos of herself with Tom online in which she was described (with clearly romantic connotations) as a mystery brunette. I don’t want rumors whirling around me. I don’t want my life to be analyzed by random strangers all over the internet.

I find our fame-fixated culture to be a little disturbing. I work with kids who want to be famous. They talk about becoming YouTubers for profit or becoming an online “influencer.” Being an actor or pop star is seen as even more attractive. They see fame as cool, but is that really the kind of life that anyone wants? Do you really want people analyzing every area of your life?

As I’ve been saying, I don’t. I don’t need paparazzi following my family or my relationships around. I don’t want fans writing tumblr posts about why I seemed sad during a press tour or wondering who I was going to date next. I don’t want to google myself and find out that people are writing fan fiction about my life. I don’t know what the answer to this sort of behavior is. I don’t know how we stop treating celebrities like they’re our best friends and we have a right to their lives. I know that we ought to let them just be people, but I don’t know how we make that happen. I also know that some celebrities encourage this sort of behavior. They allow fans to have this limitless access to their lives.

The other day, my friend and I were discussing why our culture embraces “holidays” like “It’s gonna be May” and celebrating Cinco de Mayo when one has no Mexican heritage…or any concept of what the Battle of Puebla actually was. (May I bring some crepes to your Cinco celebration to remind you who won that war?) Her theory, which makes sense to me, is that as we’ve stopped celebrating religious feasts, we’ve “had” to create secular feasts to replace them. If you’re not going to have a big celebration/festival for Pentecost or Easter or any other feast, then you have to find another reason to have a celebration.

I think that our celebrity fascination stems from a similar place. We don’t celebrate Saints anymore. Similarly, there isn’t much attention paid to secular “greats.” But we have celebrities. And with our modern technology, we have all kinds of access to them. That’s made them into our heroes and idols. Now, there’s nothing wrong with having heroes; I think that everyone needs at least one hero. But I think that it’s important to consider why we choose our heroes.

I also think that our current technology allows us to have seemingly unlimited access to our heroes, which can be dangerous. (After all, who was it who said that we should never meet our heroes?) We can learn too much. We can see flaws and judge the things that we don’t like. But it can also be hard on the heroes. Having unlimited access to a person can wear on that person. Imagine being Chris Pine having someone take pictures of you when you’ve just gotten off an international flight. As I said above, you couldn’t pay me to deal with that. Imagine being almost any famous person and having your personal life dissected by complete strangers.

I think this is all unfair to famous people, and it’s not a life I’d want. I don’t think that I’ll manage to change my students’ minds, but I can still try to present what I believe to be my rational point of view. Reason doesn’t cost anything. I may never change the world, but maybe I’ll get a few people to at least think about my opinion.

Choose the Wedding

There is a saying that all of Shakespeare’s plays end either with a wedding or a funeral. (It’s not entirely true; some end with more than one wedding or funeral.) If a play ends with a wedding, it’s a comedy. If it ends with a funeral, it’s a tragedy. (If it ends with a dude dying alone in a castle in northern England, it’s a history.)

In Madeleine L’Engle’s Certain Women, this concept is used to describe a way of approaching life. You can either choose the wedding or the funeral. You can either choose joy or you can choose sorrow. Choosing joy doesn’t keep bad things from happening and choosing sorrow doesn’t completely eliminate bad things. But it’s about your mindset. How will I approach each day? Each situation? Will I choose the wedding or the funeral? Will I choose to live with joy or will I choose to live in the negatives?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. My week began with a funeral and will end with a wedding. As I was describing this to a coworker last week, she said, “Oh, it’s the circle of life!” At first I thought she was kidding, but she has a point. Weddings, births, funerals…it is the circle of life. But it also brings to bear a good question.

Am I living in a way that chooses the wedding or that chooses the funeral?

I don’t know the answer to that question. I think that I tend toward the funeral more than I ought. But when I think about it in such terms, I don’t want to choose the funeral. I want to choose the wedding. I want to choose joy. I think that’s a place to begin.

“Joy is a matter of perspective. It often takes work. But there are no circumstances of life in which you cannot experience Christian joy. You can experience it as a concrete reality in your life, not just as an abstraction.”

-Father Michael Scanlan, TOR

But it’s only the beginning. Wanting to do a thing is not the same as doing it. And actually choosing joy is much harder than wanting to choose joy. I can’t give you some magic solution or some quick tip to make it happen. It’s the result of consciously getting up in the morning day in and day out and making a conscious choice to live with joy.

“Walk joyously through life. And at the times you cannot, at least walk with faith and courage.”

-St. Francis de Sales

I’m told that things like this get easier as they become habits. I can’t promise you that. I can tell you that I hope it’s true. I’d like it to be true. But I know that building a habit is hard. The only advice that I can give you is to make an active decision to focus on joy. Ask God to put joy into your heart, and choose joy daily. To quote Henri Nouwen, “choose joy and keep choosing it.”

Sometimes (like this week for me) life feels like a whirlwind. That’s a real thing. It doesn’t always work out smoothly or perfectly. But in this week, I’ve been reminded that in good times and bad, we’re given the opportunity to choose joy.

So let’s do that. Whether we’re going to a wedding or struggling through the worst bogs of singleness, let’s remember to find God and goodness in the little things. Let’s choose joy. Let’s choose the wedding.