My wise potted pals  

There’s a little garden in the middle of the school where I teach, and there resides my three potted pals. I’m starting to think their presence is a must in any garden.


I’ve walked past them about a hundred times now, yet they never fail to put a smile on my face. While they may look rather spacey, those vacuous eyes belie great spiritual wisdom. “Why are you frowning? Be silly, be kooky. It’s a lot of fun!”

They jolt me out of any sense of self-importance that creeps in as the day goes by. I’ve learned that when we stop taking ourselves too seriously, it frees us up to take other people more seriously. Which is important in many vocations, and so good for the health of our souls.

Thanks for the daily reminder, little friends! ūüôā

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When you know your “good days” are numbered

The first time I tasted a depressive episode in 2011, I didn’t think it was anything more a¬†one-time glitch in an otherwise emotionally healthy life. And then in the winter of 2012, it returned, and this time worse in manifold ways. Eight months later, I emerged stronger than before, declaring to myself and the world that I wouldn’t fear a relapse. But the truth was, I didn’t really believe it would come back. It was a vague possibility in my head, but nothing more.

No prizes for guessing this one, but it did return the following spring. Again, and this is highly likely due to inadequate treatment and self-care, this one was also worse than its predecessor. I hadn’t even had a chance to attempt to¬†conceptualize what that might even look like. Before I knew it, I was reduced to a human ball of invisible, destructive thoughts — sometimes sobbing, sometimes suicidal, other times both.

I am now well, and am beginning to grasp what it means that this is going to be a recurring theme in my life. As I pour my refreshed energy and extended wake time into the passions God has placed on my heart, I am also aware that I cannot lay claim to my present capacities indefinitely.

What do I do with this awareness? I don’t know what the “best practices” are (feel free to share any advice with me), but I’ll probably have many tries to figure this out anyway. But typically, my approach these days have been to “seize every moment”. I try not to sleep beyond what’s necessary for my health, I try not to say no to an invitation to a meal/coffee/conversation/adventure, I try not to reject the appeal of someone in need. I also assess the gifts and talents God has bestowed on me (for example, my voice, my writing, and then those drawing skills that seemingly came out of nowhere) and consider how I can use them to bless others. I reflect on the special passions He has planted in me, such as my love for children, the youth, and the developmentally disabled, and consider how they ought to inform my vocational decisions.

On a more proactive, self-protection side, I’ve been making good on this hypothesis: that if I took advantage of the times when I’m not depressed to learn more about depression (from reading books and articles, and talking to experts including my own healthcare providers), I will eventually become better at handling depressive episodes when they do return. These on top of responsibly staying on medication and being disciplined about self-care, of course.

Now, and you’re probably already thinking this: though I write this from the perspective of someone diagnosed with “recurrent major depressive disorder”, these musings are relevant to any living human. ¬†Our good days are numbered, our days in general are numbered. We don’t know what tragedy might befall us, and when it might. We don’t know what we might lose tomorrow. And then there are also the things we can reasonably expect: the changes that will come with old age, and of course, the fact that we will all die.

Maybe these aren’t things we often think about, and I might even be coming off as if I were still in the thick of depression. It’s also often said that to think about the end of life prevents us from living our lives, but I patently disagree. I believe there are few things more important to how we live our lives than contemplating the temporality, and fragility, of life on this side of eternity. Accepting the vanity of our present pursuits is the beginning of discovering our true purpose, and the true meaning of our lives.

It’s getting easier, these days, to acknowledge our mortality on a mere theoretical level, without really allowing it to sink in in our daily deeds and interactions. Perhaps because modern society has gotten so good at marginalizing death and suffering. Those things are hidden away in hospitals and hospices. Even the things that aren’t hidden from plain sight — like the plight of the homeless, and our brothers and sisters languishing daily under systemic injustice and oppression — we’ve somehow been trained to phase them out of our interior lives. Because it’s more convenient (not to mention more lucrative for corporations) that we are kept distracted by illusions of invincibility and the pursuits of temporary pleasures.

But fight that. I invite you think reflect on these realities more often than you might be used to. I speak not from a preacher’s podium, but from someone who’s been brought so low she had no choice but contemplate these unpleasant reality checks. This is not to rain on anybody’s parade, because the contemplation of “unpleasant” truths is necessary bitter medicine to a pride that needs humbling, a temper that needs taming, a coldness that needs thawing, an indifference that needs shattering, and a soul that needs healing.

I have come to trust in the Great Physician who administers this medicine, and I trust Him with my entire life and being.

Swallow the bitterness in faith, and then we can begin to taste the goodness of life in its fullness. I’m still catching new glimpses of it each day. A life where I am not the center, where I can delight in giving more than I do receiving, where I can truly delight in the joys of others without envy (for the most part), where I rejoice simply in knowing that I am a beloved child of God, where I look forward to an eternity in my final destination.

If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he is travelling wrong,
Then my living shall not be in vain.

If I can do my duty as a Christian really ought,
If I can bring back beauty to a world up wrought,
If I can spread love’s message as the Master taught,
Then my living shall not be in vain.

(From “If I Can Help Somebody”, arranged by Ray Liebau.)

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Congratulations on making it to the end of the “heaviest” post I have written in a while. Leave a comment with your thoughts — I would love to hear from any perspective! ūüôā You can also find this blog on Facebook.

There’s a bit of Ozzy in all of us

A couple of exciting things have happened in the last few weeks. First, the realization¬†that my antidepressants¬†are working¬†and that my condition is stabilizing. Second, the fine folks of WordPress plucking me out of cyber obscurity by featuring one of my posts¬†on ‘Freshly Pressed’. Stop the presses — The Huffington Post just picked it up too! And last but not least, the surprise¬†discovery that I have a hidden talent in…doodling.

The following images are of my first “collection”, The Misfit Animals. Meet Ozzy the Ostracized Ostrich, Annie the Antisocial Anteater, Malcolm the Maladjusted Meerkat, and Camille the Capricious Camel.

Ozzie Print
Ozzy the Ostracized Ostrich
Malcolm Print
Malcolm the Maladjusted Meerkat
Annie Print
Annie the Antisocial Anteater
Camille Print
Camille the Capricious Camel

The impetus behind the series? Just this simple observation: we can be so preoccupied by certain traits or circumstances we forget that the individual is far more complex than that.

I see this in myself when I am deep in depression, and in any mortal who struggles with insecurities. At work, I see it in students who can’t get past the “shame” of having been diagnosed with a learning disability.

The same tunnel-vision effect applies in the way we view others. I see this in the way people react to those who are “different” because of physical, intellectual, or developmental disabilities. And last but not least, I also see this in the way we are quick to condemn and dehumanize criminal offenders based on their crime or pathological condition (I will write more on this soon).

When we fail to see people (be it ourselves or others) all their complexity, instead reducing individuals to specific traits or behaviors, we will fail to recognize their beauty, value, and humanity.

(‘The Misfit Animals’¬†can now be purchased as art prints and a plethora of other products at my new Society6 store. For those who, like me, often fear being “boring”, Nikki the Nondescript Narwhal will soon be joining the family.)

Print Collage
The Misfit Animals by Thingamadoodle

Please don’t be a teacher if you’re not going to love your job

At the beginning of the academic year, I noticed a few high school freshmen ¬†getting confused between¬†simplifying algebraic expressions and¬†solving¬†algebraic equations. It took just 15 minutes to get to¬†the root of the problem:¬†they don’t understand the concept of the equal sign. You know, our ubiquitous and seemingly benign friend: “=”. And then I saw the same problem in some sophomores, and then even a junior.

My first instinct was to wonder if they had a learning disability of some sort that’s hindered them from grasping basic mathematical concepts all these years. But then I see that they read just fine, write just fine, count just fine…so what’s the problem here?

Well, I’m inclined to think that if a teenager enters high school not understanding the equal sign, some certified “teachers” out there have been doing them a big¬†— no — monumental¬†disservice (and continuing to do so for many other kids).

They say it takes a village to raise a child. If parents/guardians are the village chief, teachers rank a close second on the hierarchy of influence, considering how much time¬†kids spend in school. The average American child spends¬†1,260 hours¬†in school per year (let that sink in…). Teachers simply cannot afford to not care about their job.

Well, maybe they can afford to. But kids can’t afford to have their teachers¬†conducting half-assed lessons. Parents can’t afford to have their kids be exposed¬†to an awful role model every day. And our society can’t afford¬†the results of¬†classrooms operating like this:

A 1910 prediction of what 21st century classrooms would look like. We don't have that technology, but this depiction isn't too far from the truth...
A 1910 prediction of what 21st century classrooms would look like. We don’t have that technology, but this isn’t too far from reality. This is lazy, homogenized education.

As a teacher, you cannot afford to not like your job. There are plenty of other jobs where you can excel without¬†being particularly fond of your duties. That’s because Excel sheets/Powerpoint slides aren’t going to be ruined because you whipped them up in an hour when you were supposed to do it in three. You can always print a new set if you spilled coffee all over whatever it is people carry in those leather-bound folders, and your clients will never have to know it happened. But children and teenagers are human beings, for goodness’ sake. You¬†leave permanent imprints in their minds, their characters, their ideals, values, aspirations, their¬†whole lives.

For every dedicated and engaged teacher out there, there are going to be a few who are “bad” just because they’re not particularly gifted at teaching, or because they are overburdened by a bureaucratic and unsupportive system. That’s unfortunate, and should definitely be fixed, but the scarier question is this: for every teacher who does a good and thorough job, how many are lazy, entitled, and uncaring? I don’t think there are official statistics for this, and I’d be too¬†afraid to find out the answer anyway.

I had a 7th grade History teacher who napped at her desk while we copied notes off the screen. 13-year-old me decided I hated history and never took another history class. Then there was an 11th-grade Economics teacher who would roll her eyes at our questions, which made me determined never to ask another question in class. But I was lucky that the number of good teachers I had outweighed the number of bad ones, so I turned out quite okay overall.

I hope all teachers love their job. What does loving your job mean in the context of teaching? I don’t mean you have to feel like sunshine and rainbows all the time, because it’s obviously hard work with many ups and downs. I don’t (yet) have much experience in the education sector, but I believe loving your job quite simply comes down to:

1. Recognizing the responsibility and privilege you have to be able to do life with your students.

2. Recognizing the value of every young person your serve on a daily basis.

And of course, acting upon those recognitions.

If I can have my way and if future circumstances allow it, I’m homeschooling my kids. And if I can’t I pray and hope they never end up with teachers who let them get away with not understanding the equal sign.

On “zentangling”, life, and God

I haven’t written anything new over the last few days (though there are many thoughts I’m itching to get on paper), because I’ve been…doodling. A lot.

Apparently, this type of detail-oriented (or should I say “obsessed”?) and geometric doodling has a name — it’s called a “zentangle”. I would not have known this if my colleague hadn’t passed me a Zentangle workbook to pass to Omari, my student who’s currently in the hospital.

Annie the Antisocial Anteater
Annie the Antisocial Anteater
Camille the Capricious Camel
Camille the Capricious Camel
Malcolm the Maladjusted Meerkat
Malcolm the Maladjusted Meerkat

I am hooked, and think I may have figured out the appeal of zengtangling. It’s a lot¬†like life — you can’t erase any of the strokes you’ve made, but you can adapt and build off from those accidents, misfortunes, and mistakes. In the moment, every detail seems random and incongruous with everything else, but at the end of the day you find yourself with¬†a¬†final tapestry much more complex and beautiful than what you could have dreamed up at the beginning.

And it reminds me very much of God’s continuing work in my life and yours.¬†In the words of a very wise priest, God is a skillful impressionist painter — his work can make little to no sense up close, but when you step back you see a masterpiece.

This has been fun and therapeutic for me, but I also connect deeply to the idea of characters who are so fixated¬†with a certain trait that they forget there’s so much more beauty and complexity to them. I’ve seen it in myself, in people struggling with mental illnesses, in my students, and in how people view¬†those who have special needs.

I’m now thinking of putting them on sale as prints/T-shirts/tote bags/iPhone skins on Society6. What do you think?

Depression taught me to love the developmentally disabled

The title of this post was originally going to be “How I came to empathize with the developmentally disabled”. Then I realized I had no right to use the word¬†“empathize”, because I have never walked a day in their shoes, and will never¬†fully empathize. But I’m writing this because I believe my depression offered me a small window into the world of those who know they are different from the majority, those who feel incapable of¬†fully participating in society. My last two cycles of clinical depression taught me to have compassion for those for whom such struggles are part of an inescapable¬†reality.

Depression affects everyone differently. A recurring theme for me is being robbed of many cognitive, social, and emotional abilities. While I haven’t figured out how much of it is real, and how much simply a matter of distorted perception, it all seemed to me like an objective, permanent reality¬†(and there was no talking me out of it — just ask my therapist, my family, my then-boyfriend, and my close friends).

I distinctly remember what it was like¬†being at a friend’s 21st birthday party. I excused myself to go to the bathroom many more times than necessary, all to avoid having to converse with another person. I don’t know how to hold a conversation. I wouldn’t know how to respond and react appropriately. All it would take is one sentence or one stammer and I’d be exposed.¬†They would know I’m a freak. And then they would either walk away, or at best they might¬†stay out of pity.

At the dinner table,¬†I freaked out when an academic asked me what I was majoring in in college. I knew that the moment I said Sociology, he would follow up with a question that would expose my ignorance and my failure to understand my own discipline. And¬†I dreaded¬†how everyone at the party¬†would inevitably¬†ask,¬†“Where do you go to school?” Because I knew what they’d expect when I told them I went to the University of Chicago. They’d expect me to be intelligent and insightful, and I would hopelessly fall short. I didn’t even dare to talk to the little children at the party, believing that I would be looked down upon¬†even by those a¬†whole decade younger than me.

There was one partygoer different from everybody else, an elderly¬†lady with Down Syndrome. I quietly watched how she stared into space most of the time, and how her relatives coaxed her into standing in the right place when the time came to take a group picture. I felt a profound sense of affinity with her. Though I wasn’t sure how aware she was of¬†her own disability, I yearned to commiserate with her.¬†It’s okay, I don’t belong here either. I don’t know what these people are talking about either. I don’t know why they’re enjoying themselves either. This world is a¬†strange and scary place.¬†

It wasn’t just in public.¬†I found this picture of me (in green) and my sisters watching¬†Midnight In Paris¬†at my apartment.

You can’t tell from looking at the picture, but while my sisters both loved the movie (as do most who’ve seen it), to me it was torture. I couldn’t really pay attention to the plot or dialogue — I was too busy feeling tortured about not being able to identify with the thoughts, motivations, and emotions of the characters in the film. The credits rolled and I had no idea what the movie was about.

And here’s a picture taken on graduation day.

graduationIt’s an iteration of classic goofy shot I often took with my friends. Except this time, it wasn’t funny to me because all I could think of was how I would ever justify being a UChicago graduate when I was so “dumb”, when I could function neither in the classroom nor in the real world, when I believed my life was “over” because I’d never be able to get/hold a job or start a family in the future. Not long after this picture was taken, I began going around saying my goodbyes as if I’d never see many of these people ever again, as I was planning to go into reclusion for good.

And as I come¬†out of depression, as my mental agility, emotional energy, and ability to relate to other people are coming back, I haven’t been able to forget how lonely and out of place I felt all those months. Those feelings of not belonging in the world, of not being able to live up to the expectations of society, of being defective in every way, of being a mistake amidst all of God’s perfect creations, will always remain fresh in me.

And this is the story of how God humbled me, and instilled in me new and deep love and compassion for those labeled by society as¬†“defective”, or “different” at best. I invite you to reflect on how you’ve perceived or treated our brothers and sisters who don’t meet the constructed, arbitrary standards of beauty, success, and normalcy.

If you personally know what it’s like to have a developmental disability of any kind, or if you know someone who does, I would be honored to hear about and learn from your experiences.

Related post: Those with “special needs” can teach us a thing or two about humanity

“Special needs” kids can teach us a thing or two about humanity

As an aspiring special education teacher, I wanted to learn how to interact with kids with more profound developmental disabilities. I found KEEN, a nonprofit that¬†pairs volunteers with special needs participants (kids and young adults) in a time of free play. I started two weeks ago; and as it turns out, there wasn’t much to learn at all — though there was much¬†to unlearn.

My buddy, Charles, is an African-American male in his 20s. Because of his intellectual disability, he behaves like a young child, and would often repeat himself. His favorite lines are “How you doing?” and “What color is this?” Charles is also incredibly friendly, and would shake hands with anyone he meets. Sometimes, he would pick up your hand and sniff it (it’s his way of showing affection), which tends to startle people meeting him for the first time. He loves shooting hoops, which I happen to be terrible at, and¬†thankfully doesn’t bother him.

When I first met Charles, I was¬†keenly aware that under “normal” circumstances, we would unlikely be friends. Charles and I have close to nothing in common — not gender, not race, not age, not occupation,¬†not skills, not interests. But it quickly became so clear to me that we have one very important thing in common — we’re both God’s children.

There is unparalleled¬†beauty in simple interactions. When I talk to Charles and other participants at KEEN, there is absolutely no pretense. There’s no need to be smart, or witty, or funny, or interesting. No judgment, no expectations. Simply put, these are interactions in the purest form. No one’s trying to impress anybody, and no one’s trying to gain anything from anybody. I felt freedom.

Occasionally, I take a step back to just marvel at what’s going on in this basketball court, and I realize that this is an oasis in a clockwork society that expects so much of every¬†individual.

One time, Charles wanted to take a walk outside of the basketball court, so I took his hand and we ventured out for 5 minutes, during which we ran into a few college students. Charles being Charles, promptly walked up to them and asked for all their names, before shaking and sniffing their hands. I was enraged by the grimaces and general discomfort plastered all over their faces. That was the moment I realized the extent to which¬†we’ve created a society so hostile to those who are “different”.

It’s no surprise that we’re seeing more and more “wrongful birth” lawsuits filed by parents who declare that they would have aborted their baby if they’d known he/she would be different. And then we have the likes of Richard Dawkins who’d go so far as to say that “immoral” not to abort unborn babies with Down Syndrome.

I, too, am guilty of perpetuating an elitist, ableist world. For four years, I immersed myself in the intellectual bubble that is The University of Chicago. There, I learned life-changing critical thinking skills that I am incredibly thankful for. Unfortunately, it also instilled in me a poisonous pride in my ability to engage in “intellectual” conversations, and hence a preference for a certain type of interaction. It took a major bout of depression that robbed me of many of my cognitive abilities for me to be humbled once more.

I love the work organizations like KEEN does, but it saddens me that we actually need to recruit volunteers to fulfill social and emotional needs that wonderful people like Charles are often deprived of.

I encourage you to try spending some time with people like Charles. They will always teach and remind us about what it means to be fellow human beings, and it will be good for our souls.

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Charles gave me a slip of paper with his name on it so I wouldn’t forget him over the course of the week.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, ‚ÄúWho then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?‚ÄĚ And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, ‚ÄúTruly I say to you, unless you become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. ‚ÄúWhoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 18:1-4)

 

 

Also published on The Mighty.

Related post: Depression taught me to have compassion for the developmentally disabled