on manta rays, helping out, and seeing your own sunshine

My birthday’s coming up, so I’m having a pretty reflective and contemplative week. How did I get here? Where am I going next? Have I done enough at this stage of my life? What would enough even look like? I don’t have answers to any of these questions, and that generally fills me with a lot of anxiety.

Ultimately, though, things feel pretty okay today. I struggled with adjusting to a new medication this week, but I’m also about to go into my favorite part of my work year. Starting on Monday, I get to teach amazing, nerdy teenagers about Shakespeare, and work towards providing them with the opportunity to speak the truth regarding their own emotions and experiences. And if I’m going to do that well, I’ve got to kind of step up and “fake it ’til I make it.” These students mean the world to me, and dammit, I’m going to do whatever I can to give them four weeks of poetry and awesome.

Finding opportunities to step outside of my own head and heart in order to really give my attention and consideration to another creature helps ease my depression and anxiety immensely. I’ve talked a little bit about this before, but I volunteer every Friday morning at the aquarium. I get up at 6 am, fill my travel mug with coffee, and pin my volunteer name badge to my official aquarium sweatshirt. I’m never not proud to wear anything associated with the aquarium.

Being at the aquarium before it opens provides me a ton of time to experience the perfect quiet I’ve been craving so hard lately. The very first task I perform on Friday mornings is collecting water samples from several habitats. One of those habitats is the little touch pool that resides within our largest exhibit.

When I’m volunteering, it matters to me that I fulfill all of my responsibilities in a timely fashion, and that I make myself as available to help out as possible. But also… I mean, it’s not my job. So, there’s not really any pressure on me. So much of the worry that usually fills my brain when I’m at work is absent. I can move at my own pace. If I want to stop in front of a beautiful pool filled with tropical fish and go through a sun salutation, that doesn’t feel like a big deal.

So, I have my own special little aquarium ritual. When I get to the touch pool, I set everything down that isn’t my mug of coffee. I tuck up into a little corner of a window looking into the larger exhibit, and I just look up. I breathe purposefully, and invite my heart to loosen up and let go of the rest of the week, good and bad.

For five minutes, I sit in a silence that I don’t experience anywhere else in my daily routines. For five minutes on Friday mornings, I sip coffee, and watch the fish. I consider the grace and power of a Manta ray and the swiftness of a shark. I allow myself to feel small, but also connected to a world that is momentarily without some of the horrors and nightmares that accompany human existence. I am here, and Manta rays are here, and it is an honor to share a planet with them.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with Walt Whitman lately, and in particular with “O Me! O Life!” I printed out a copy, and tacked it up behind my desk at work, and I try to read it out loud every time I see it. If you’re not familiar, here it is:

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

I won’t be able to volunteer at the aquarium for the next four weeks. I’ll miss it very much, but I’ll be too busy with my students. Instead of peace and quiet, I’ll be operating on a crazed, sustained enthusiasm to keep the energy up during class and rehearsal. I can’t wait. There will be so much good amid these days, because I’ll be sharing it. Because I’ll have to be outside of myself and my fears in order to best take care of my students.

Being outside of myself also means I’ll have a moment here or there to see myself. To really look at the me that’s able to shine when I don’t have the time to retreat into my spine, and let the goblins take over. On a good day, I’ll acknowledge that I’m looking at who I really am.

I’m almost 28. On Fridays, I make salads for turtles, and during the summer, I direct teenagers in one of Shakespeare’s play. And I do a lot of things the rest of the year, and I’ll keep doing them. Yeah, sometimes my results will be not just poor, but abysmal. I’ll be sad a lot, and my nightmares will recur.

But I am here. Manta rays are here. Turtles are here. Teenage humans are here, and are just beginning to crawl into their own skins and decide what they want that skin to look like. And it is an unfathomable honor to be a part of their lives, and to do whatever I can to help them grow and learn to see themselves for the rock stars that I see whenever I watch them.

You are here. I don’t think anyone’s skin ever fits right 100% of the time, no matter how old we get. Some days the crotch rides up a little bit, and sometimes you just didn’t wear the right bra, and sometimes you notice a rip in your ass that might have been there for days or even years, and why the hell didn’t someone just tell you about it?

We all have the opportunity every day to feed a turtle, or to gently pull aside a friend and let them know that there’s a big hole in their pants. So, let’s do it. Let’s give ourselves a break to step out into the sun, and help someone else. If you have the chance to find a weekly volunteer gig, I can’t recommend it enough, both because it’s a lot of fun, and because I think it’s a wonderful means of helping soothe an anxious brain. Share your awesome.

I first heard “O Me! O Life!” recited by the late Robin Williams in Dead Poets’ Society, my very favorite movie of all time. So, I’m going to let Professor Keating take us out on this one.

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

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