For two seasons, I work away at the keyboard, writing the simplest sounds and phrases for people who don’t know them yet. My students, international employees at local warehouses, are the ones who turn America’s internet orders into real stuff that shows up on our porches. I’ve been teaching and writing curriculum to offer them the gift of language and cultural understanding. I’m working for a great company and serving people whom I have great affection for, but the truth is technical writing is not my favorite.
You think it will take five minutes, but it takes fifty to flesh out the littlest thing you never think of in the language you so easily speak, in the culture you speed through every day. I bite my nails while I organize sounds, phrases, verb forms, and vocabulary, frame content within topics, and write out language mechanics in a meaningful way that doesn’t overwhelm beginning learners. That’s not to mention outlining step by step instructions, sourcing and editing images, designing, and formatting the curriculum. I want to time-lapse this and flit to the end, but deep and detailed work resists hurry.
I need time and space to inch along in this project, but my schedule and environment make it impossible to stay in a state of deep work for long. There’s always something I could or should be tending to. There is never-ending car trouble. Our sump pump fails and heavy rains seep in to soak the wool rugs in the basement. Day-old laundry sits in the washer and I won’t remember it until I’m laying in bed past midnight. The toys and clothes I’ve sorted into bags but haven’t yet donated slowly trickle back into the house in the grabby hands of my children. Even the work I’ve done is getting undone.
I sit in the glow of the computer screen and one kid taps my shoulder to try to get me to relent and say yes to the candy question I’ve said no to six times in six minutes. One is sneaking the bin of Sharpies out of my office. The other wants me to come see the latest LEGO creation. I barely have time for eye contact, let alone hanging out. And my friends are starting to feel like acquaintances from the lack of open space on my calendar.
This is not working. A litany of complaints rolls across my lips and I start blaming myself for my idealistic “yes” to this project all those months ago.
Too often, I have told myself I can’t rest until my work is done, that I have no choice but to stay on it even if it makes me miserable. But I’m coming to see that happiness is available to me in the middle of the work.
I need a breather. I walk out to the yard. A hot wind blows through. I put all the strength of my fingers into pinching my knotted-up shoulders. In my so-called veggie garden, weeds camp out where the cherry tomatoes should be. But the fresh coat of deep blue paint on the siding reminds me that we have seen some progress on the to-do list this summer.
I turn to walk along the side of the house, not far from my office window. I pause and feel the dried grass under my bare feet. When I look toward the unruly bushes planted three years ago, I notice new splashes of color. Not paint, but something with life in it. Pink, then burgundy, then deep purple, almost black.
I pull at a wayward branch and find a cluster of knotted fruit. My palm is traced with juice. Sitting inside with the bushes blocked from view, I hadn’t noticed the growth in any of its stages until the final one: fruition.
In this patch of tangled branches, something has actually grown. And not on account of my hovering. I pluck a blackberry and pop it in my mouth. It bursts, sweet and sour. The seed crunches under my bite. I hardly know what to think except this is what I want to do with my life right now. Just pick blackberries.
Something has worked! Even in the unamended builder’s soil. Even while I worked on other things. Even in my garden-less summers. The blackberries are forgiving. Conditions don’t need to be optimal for the work to get done, and get done well. A messy process can still produce worthy results. Sun and rain, a few hundred days, and now there is something to show just for the time passing.
A sustainable, enjoyable way of life and work is just as important as today’s production goals. I’m making an effort now…to work for the good of others while still being good to myself.
Team leads at the warehouse wouldn’t push my students to work this many hours in a row at this intensity, yet in my work for these English Language Learners, I am wearing myself down. The logistics company sees workers not as machines to run into the ground, but as teammates to nurture and empower, people whose well-being matters both on the clock and off. From tackling food scarcity to providing English classes as part of the workday, the company’s Human Resources team is finding creative and caring ways to address human needs. A sustainable, enjoyable way of life and work is just as important as today’s production goals. I’m making an effort now to treat myself the same way, to work for the good of others while still being good to myself.
I’ve been learning to trust the process, to relax in the work and let it develop day by day. My students trust me enough to speak up when something is too hard. With their feedback in class, I pivot and simplify the curriculum. I take out the verb forms they just aren’t ready for. I cut the overgrowth from one lesson and paste it into the next. I chop the list of vocabulary words in half. As we are going lesson by lesson, the curriculum grows in some ways and shrinks in others until, after a long season of work, it is digestible…like the blackberries in my yard.
Too often, I have told myself I can’t rest until my work is done, that I have no choice but to stay on it even if it makes me miserable. But I’m coming to see that happiness is available to me in the middle of the work. When I become aware of my discomfort, I can acknowledge it. I can hit pause on what feels urgent and tune my senses to what is working in the few square feet in front of me. I can communicate when something is too hard and express my need for more time and space. I can feel the glory of simply being a person on this wild, beautiful planet, and put my work in its proper place.
Soon, my classes wind down and it’s back to school for my kids. On our way to 7th grade registration, my son comes with me to the English Language Learner party at the warehouse. He puts a forkful of cake in his mouth and shakes hands with the people who have had much of my attention this summer. My kids have shared me, and we’ve all grown through it. Now, my son gets to see firsthand the reason for all my hours sitting at the computer or driving to the warehouse across town. What wasn’t optimal has somehow worked. Success has come simply as day stacked on day in the middle of the elements.
Six months of curriculum writing, twelve weeks of teaching the work in progress, and finally the planning gives way to completion, pressure gives way to celebration. It is done! A messy thing has fruited. Ideas have taken shape on the pages of the finished curriculum and out at the work stations in the warehouse. My students lift their eyes from the floor and make eye contact. They smile and speak up in English.
We are all learning.
What about you?
How do you soothe your stress in the middle of tedious work?
When have you been surprised by the positive results of a messy process?
I’D LOVE TO HEAR FROM YOU. SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS IN THE COMMENTS….
ELL teaching photo by Hannah Rogers.