As the Days Darken
The leaves are showing their best colors this week, and falling rapidly to the ground. Such a short moment of splendor for them. Their cycle will be met: the leaves will fall. Some leaves will be allowed to stay and nurture the soil beneath their trees of origin. Others will be swept away by the wind, or by the man, only to be replaced in the spring with fertilizers in an attempt to feed those hungry lawns.
This season of shedding has seemed empty for me … no classroom, no students, no schedule, no need for me at school. Like the trees, my moment of splendor … thirty years of teaching every grade, every subject to every age and profile of students has fallen away- those years were no more than a blink in the millennium of education. I continue to sort and divide old school papers and books, emptying boxes one by one, and sorting things into two piles: one that I must keep forever, and the other that no one else would ever want. The discard pile is finally beginning to outsize the must keep forever. How can I dispose of construction paper greeting cards made by students, signed with love, and decorated with hearts and glitter? What will I do with old five and a half inch floppy data disks that run only on now-obsolete school computers but holding inaccessible treasures such as student compositions, grade book records, and meeting agenda and notes? Will they biodegrade in a landfill? Will they break my shredder, or break my heart?
As I read through the decades-old notes and letters from parents of my students, some thanking me, some praising me, and some simply acknowledging me, I find it easier to add to the discard pile. The schedules and agendas of meetings past bring a flicker of memory, a hint of urgency, of deadlines, of accountability. Those are quickly placed lightly on the growing pile. The grade spreadsheets are taken in to the shredder’s pile, destined to die an infamous death, keeping confidential all of the tardy marks, the retake grades, and the missing scores. Of course all of the As and A+s are also shredded, and distributed in their small fragments equally among the names of all of the students, rich and poor, short and tall, thin and round. The landfill will not measure anyone, nor label anyone. There is a sense of satisfaction in feeding the grades to the shredder.
Rick and I sat with the psychiatrist again today, and I began the conversation. I told him that I’d been successfully wearing a positive mask this past week. I said that it was unusual for me to come into a session without having talked it through with Rick, but that this session would be unusual. I owned up to the feelings that are surfacing this season … the sense of not being useful, or needed … the sense of needing more than I might expect to receive from others. I’m not at the head of the classroom anymore – I don’t have the attention of the students. I’m not held accountable for others’ success or failure, which is in itself a relief, but I’m also not able to feel the satisfaction of teaching a new skill, or sharing a piece of history, or a lesson of life. I’m waking up, eating, reading, typing responses to others’ books, posting those reviews in the vacuum of cyberspace, eating again, and sleeping. There is not a lot of difference from one day to the next, except that on occasion I am able to attack those piles of sorting. It is not a pleasant diversion, other than those brief moments that I spend re-reading notes written by young students, or the moments that Rick and I spend talking with each other while driving to a doctor’s appointment, his or mine.
I told the doctor that I know that Rick needs me, and I need him, and that together we are complete, and happy. Yet this sense of emptiness is within me. I had reason recently to visit a relative who had been hospitalized for a few days. We visited him again when he went home. It was a long ride, but one that had a purpose, and value. In the following weeks his life returned to normal, as did ours. I sent him a card to continue wishing him health. I sent another card to another relative who had had surgery this month. I sent a birthday card to a friend, and another letter to thank a sister who had kept me in the loop regarding my relatives’ illnesses. And I sent a longer letter to a friend from school with whom I exchange notes now and then. I thought about those contacts, that little flurry of reaching out to appreciate others, like a flurry of leaves swirling across a busy sidewalk, only to find rest on another spot, separated again. That one leaf might cover another for awhile doesn’t change their paths. That another might sit alone and unprotected from the wind won’t change the wind, nor the other leaves. They have separated from the tree. They are collectively alone.
The doctor and I agreed that this feeling, this sense of oneness, was a continuing breakthrough of sadness, and that this would not be the time to reduce the medication but instead to increase the dosage once more. I asked him whether I would at some point decrease this medication, and his response enlightened me. He told me that my former level of medication that had ‘maintained’ my coping skills had, after time, proven itself insufficient to maintain a remission of depression … and that the new dosage begun six weeks ago had not prevented that breakthrough of sadness, and so we would increase it to give it another chance at the higher level … but if it did not help me to return to my typical coping level, we would look for something different. I understood why, and I agreed. He talked with me about ‘the chicken or the egg,’ which answered my question: was I depressed because I wasn’t coping with sadness and emptiness, or was I sad and empty because I was depressed. Whichever it is, whether it is the shortening of days, an external trigger, or a continuation of altered coping levels, an internal trigger, we would pursue the chemical balance that would help me to re-establish my sense of who I am, who I can be, or who I will be. We will pursue a new maintenance level, or a new path.
The trees will eventually lose all of their leaves. Their conifer relatives will not lose their needles in this same way. They will maintain the color in their lives by continual replacement of their needles. The leaf-less winter deciduous trees will not die because of the loss of color; instead, they will hunker down, conserve their energy, and with the winter’s rest, be ready in the spring to create new growth, and repeat the cycle. They will not envy those who retain their color year round. They are not the same, after all. But they are all trees. They all have a cycle. And each of their leaves contributes to the trees’ existence if only for that brief moment of splendor. Like the leaf, I have contributed to this world of education, if only in a small way. It seems large, to me, up close and personal. But in the larger picture, it was no more than one solitary leaf.
Sometimes I want to be alone. Alone does not necessarily mean forgotten. Alone can be peaceful. Alone can be quiet. I can be alone. I can be with Rick, even when he is outside making beautiful things of wood, and I am inside writing things that may make others happy. He and I are two leaves of the same tree. We can both be alone, together, and find peace wherever we may land.