Lately, the world has been opening up here in our corner of Los Angeles, and I’ve been crying, a lot. Tears have arrived at strange times, in public and private, and more than they did for the entire pandemic year before that.
It has taken me a while to figure out why.
With these tears I’ve been thinking of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Sestina,” in which the same set of six words completes the lines of each stanza. Bishop’s poetry always reminds me of my mom, who showed me the sestina form when I started teaching English to seventh-graders two decades ago.
The poem at first seems childlike, with its repeated words house, grandmother, child, stove, almanac and tears. However, it is anything but, as “the old grandmother/ sits in the kitchen with the child/ beside the Little Marvel Stove,/ reading the jokes from the almanac,/ laughing and talking to hide her tears.”
When our students returned to campus a month ago, after a year away, I cried the first day, and the second, and the third. I couldn’t stop marveling at these three-dimensional eighth-graders in my hybrid classroom. They drop water bottles, talk over me, get distracted by a squirrel. I veer between exhilaration and exhaustion. I choke up for all that they are — lanky, gangly, awkward, hyper — and for all that they missed this past year. For all that I missed, as they grew from 5’1” and round in seventh-grade advisory to 5’8” and on the last razor’s edge of childhood in eighth-grade civics.
Now, too, my younger son, on the razor’s edge himself, is finishing his first year at our 7-12 independent school. I crane around corners to see him walking with a pod of boys across a bridge, down the stairs, toward the lunch line. How is he suddenly 13? I tear up in gratitude to his teachers, my colleagues, who shone through Zoom and now light him up in class. He didn’t really need rescuing, but in this dark year I’ve often felt they saved him, saw his soul, reeled him in.
My older son is nearly 17, and his junior year track season started last month. In the chilly metal stands one Saturday morning, alone because only one spectator per person was allowed, I cried at the starting blast. I kept crying for each lap of the 1600 meter. It got so that I couldn’t see the photos I was taking on my phone. I didn’t have a tissue, my nose turned red, and I cried at the normalcy, what we’d lost and regained.
I cried while writing our department chairs’ annual evaluation letters, sitting at my computer at home after dinner, weaving their reflections with mine. We’ve been through so much together, tense and triumphant. But we’re still so tired, and raw, and perhaps not quite fully trusting that our community will settle back to bedrock.
And I cried at live theater this month for the first time in over a year, a dance-filled performance of the musical Next to Normal on the porch of Pasadena’s iconic Gamble House. It was a drive-in. I huddled in a fleece blanket, drank apple-cinnamon tea, ate tiramisu from a plastic clamshell. The tears traced one set of tracks down my face, then another, then another. The show asks about living with loss, profound and mundane, and how to find the way through. “We need some light,” the high school senior daughter sings to open the final number. “First of all, we need some light.”
Her Teacup Full of Dark Brown Tears
It’s not unusual for me to treat crying as catharsis, for tears to show up as a way to break through stress, as Emily and Amelia Nagoski suggest in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. But it is unusual for tears to appear out of the blue during such basic daily activities.
It wasn’t until I attended a recent California Teacher Development Collaborative workshop on creating organization resilience that I started understanding why this sadness kept insisting I pay attention.
I didn’t have time. I was frustrated that I had to get a sub for class — we have so few classes left. And yet the workshop had called to me for some reason.
It ended up being one of those seminars where two hours, even online, felt too short. The workshop leaders emphasized the importance of addressing grief in moving forward as a school — not just last fall, or this spring, but through the next year and beyond. When they said, “Hyper-focus on operations is resulting in a lack of grief processing and strategy,” I felt seen and heard, thinking about how we as an administrative team have had to laser in on operations by default this year. When they said, “Hold space for anger and fear — if we try to fix it, it can make people feel diminished. Sometimes it’s a being, not a doing — being with people in their fear and grief,” I felt cared for and noticed, remembering how it had been so hard to simply sit with everyone’s sense of loss this year.
As they spoke, I thought of all the ways grief rises in my life, through denial and compartmentalization and, yes, hyper-focus on logistics. Grief rises too in the life of an independent school, where students and adults can default toward exhaustion, tilt toward perfectionism, anticipate summer as a cure-all.
One of the biggest inadequate coping mechanisms for schools this year, the presenters said, has been denial: “We just need to get back in person.” Yet this ignores the cognitive challenge, which “results from our brain’s tendency under stress to employ denial as a coping mechanism, blinding leaders to the realities in front and ahead of them, and leaving them surprised by foreseeable events,” workshop leader Kate Sheppard wrote in a blog post.
Coming out of the workshop, I found the biggest reassurance was that we cannot return to normal right away next year, even if we’re all back in person. As the presenters pointed out, “The fallout of crisis is very predictable. Next year, we are not getting back to our strategic plan as much as we are moving into our year of recovery. If we don’t, these residual impacts fester.” Next year must bring recovery, not normalcy, if we can recognize what’s good for ourselves and the people in our schools.
The Grandmother Sings to the Marvelous Stove
By the end of the two hours, I understood a little more why tears have been bubbling over. Grief at what our students have lost, what my own children have lost, how we as a society have failed all of our children this year, sits just below the surface.
I know what submerged grief looks like on me. I remember my wild leaping toward normalcy after my mom died of brain cancer 11 years ago. It looks like frantic mental tap-dancing, trying to distract myself from the swirling emotions below. It looks like toxic positivity, channeling cheer to say that everything’s fine. It looks like chronic productivity, working toward a mission I care about but without giving space and time for creative rest. It looks like crying I can’t trace, tears I can’t name.
At the end of her sestina, Bishop writes, “Time to plant tears.” Yes, I think this is their season.