Cogito ergo sump
I Think, Therefore I Am ~ Descartes
– Nonfiction by Lynn Wyvill –
I used to teach.
I will always be a ‘daughter of’, though Mom and Dad are now gone. I will always be a wife and mother. I write too. Perhaps this is something I have always been. A writer. It just took a lot of living to appreciate this was something I could do.
Once I thought teaching was that too…who I was.’I teach, therefore I am’. I received a membership at Costco using my teacher association membership card, feeling satisfaction in the privilege the acknowledgement offered me. No membership card accepted by the retailer for wife-dom. Or motherhood.
I married in the 60’s, a time bridging the 50’s and 70’s. Obvious, I realize. But the gap between those encompassing decades is wide, deep and historical. The intervening years saw the Vietnam War, Nixon’s mother very disappointed in her son’s behaviour and feminism chattering at women’s roles. I began our marriage with a hope chest, and plans of being a homemaker and a mother. My teaching certificate was backup, ‘just in case’. I taught until the 6th month of my first pregnancy. Any longer was inappropriate.
I had the privilege of being home with my children, for a time. And it was a privilege. We watched Sesame Street together as it became the base of visual learning in that generation of changes. I drank coffee with Mr. Rogers, wrapped in the casual warmth of his comfortable cardigan and his assurance all would be well in our world. Together, we went to the library, a practice one now-adult daughter tells me she dreaded. The YMCA for swimming classes; a borrowed male domain that morphed into men’s change rooms the minute the children and mothers left the building. The doctor, the dentist, the playground was all part of our day. Every minute was precious. I loved that time in my children’s lives and the miracle of their growing.
Yet, change loomed. Women were restless. Momentum shifted. I became defensive about my role. At a party, I shared with a stranger the independence of my older daughter, who at two helped herself to cold potatoes in the fridge. She was hungry. The dish of cold leftovers was accessible. I caught the glance of one woman as she rolled her eyes in that really? look. Did I have nothing better to talk about than my children? At least that is how I interpreted it. I felt judged for my choice to be a mother at home.
As time carried me in its ruthless capsule, I was yanked from what I knew into perpetual change. Running to keep up, I returned to teach. My role as mother became diluted with teaching. My perceived role as homemaker reduced its standards. Teaching overtook my life.
The job was a joy most of the time. I mothered the children under my responsibility, often leaving my ensuing love for my own children ragged at best. I worked to my ultimate ability. Was it enough? Therein lies the proverbial rub. As I gave more from an increasingly empty cup, the fill line was never reached. I cried as a frustrated child locked himself in the bathroom in anger at an unfair world. Sitting by our vacation-home river, I longed to bring a boisterous city student to romp in the trees and search for minnows in the stream. The need to help rather than teach overwhelmed me. The ability to do so flew away from my empty hands, leaving me in a gap of identities. The day came when I left the classroom and never returned. The rolling train of judgment flattened me on the tracks at the station.
Did I fail? Perhaps. Undoubtedly, in the eyes of some. What I am guilty of is extending myself beyond where my heart lived. Trying to keep up with change. Not recognizing a sleepless night followed a day out of control.
A scintilla is a spark. Something that is barely there. Thomas Moore tells of the ancients using scintilla to speak of the spark that gives life to everything we do and see. When a child turned my entire classroom into the closing scene from Les Miserables, I went home and wallpapered a hatbox. That hatbox was like a talisman, an anchor, a reminder of who I was. A signpost out of the murky swamp of depression. My scintilla.
Teaching has left a scar. There are days I pick at it. Absentmindedly, I rub it raw, opening the old wound. I’d liked to have left that part of my life with my head held high. Yet I was caught in a suction of failure. At what, I’m not entirely sure. The word depression covers many things. Burnout is another easy coverage. The definition most often given is physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.
Yet anyone who has lived in the realm of mental illness knows no definition adequately explains the turmoil of the condition. Somehow, I prefer this definition: the reduction of a substance to nothing through use or combustion.
Like a leaf dropping to the ground, the mind and the spirit crumple, dry up and eventually become nothing more than residue under the feet of others.
Oh, the body continues on. The day I left teaching, I drove to school, planned teaching notes for the supply teacher for the following week, walked through the attempts of others to interact with me, went home and lay down on the couch to sleep. Ringing in my dreams were the comments of my teaching partners.
“I always thought I’d be the one who”d burnout.”
“Somehow I thought you were the strong one.”
On and on the thoughts of others. But mostly I was overlooked. Even ignored. Already out the door of others concerns. For they had undoubtedly seen it coming. The writing was on the wall so to speak. So, I wrote it on the page. I scribbled on page upon page. Spewed my confusion on steno pads. Cried tears of frustration in my words, trying to understand what had happened.
Life didn’t stop when I stopped teaching. Our family Christmas gathering was in our new country home. There were two doors to me. I simply closed the one to the classroom. The other continued on. The role of mother, wife and friend just opened up wider and I walked into the room of me. The only thing is, it was a cluttered room. Filled with memories and bric-a-brac of other livings. No one part of life is separate.
Teachers collect things. When I began teaching I had a picture collection. It was a bankers’ file box of magazine pictures on various themes. Google replaced the need for a collection of just about anything. I kept the yearly class photos. I look at them sometimes. I see myself age. I see the children who made up my days and consider the lives they may have now. As I was typing these thoughts, I went looking for files on my teaching turmoil. I’d scribbled frustration on old workbooks, never erasing, always pushing the pencil into the page. However, as I looked in every possible file without success, I remembered the burning. On a particular winter’s day, I sat by the stove in the garden room and read each page before tossing it into the flames, letting the coals ignite the words of pain and throw them into smouldering oblivion. Reduced to nothing through combustion. Blessedly gone. Irreverently returning on the trains of irrational retrieval.
Igne natura renovatur integra.
Through fire, nature is reborn whole.
The difficulty in letting go
is the heart.
Pack rat that it is,
it carries clutter
like spidery webs
that catch me up each morning
when I walk
in the garden
for new growth
only to find
of old thoughts
in what I hoped
would be a
About the Author – Lynn Wyvill
Lynn Wyvill lives near Markdale, Ontario, the village where she grew up, and to which she returned after a lifetime away. This lifetime perspective permeates the stories and poems she writes. Her poems have twice been selected at the William Wilfrid Campbell Festival In Wiarton, Ontario. Agnes Annis, Mother and Missionary, Lynn’s story of her grandmother, is published by Brucedale Press. Undergirding Lynn’s life experiences, she attended Ontario Teachers College, Wilfrid Laurier University, York University and graduated from Humber College Creative Writing under the guidance of Sarah Sheard.
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