Personal Goals: 2015

I’m a big believer in personal goals. I set them every year instead of resolutions, and I set them for myself periodically and then reflect on how I’ve done in progressing towards them. Over the years, I’ve tackled many challenges, failed at some and succeeded at others, and gained many insights along the way at what does and does not motivate me and what values I really want at the center of my life.

2014 was a year of upheaval and change in my personal life, so in 2015, my overarching goal is to start a new phase of my life and be intentional about the way I want it to look and what habits will help me achieve it. Here are the guiding phrases I’ll be keeping in mind, followed by some concrete ways I’ll be working towards putting them in practice.

Physical Strength is Linked to Mental and Emotional Strength

This is one of the biggest lessons I’ve internalized in the past few years, and I intend to build on the successes of last year as well as learn from where I stumbled. After my strong spring, I let my fitness goals really lapse in the tidal wave of personal and professional responsibilities in the fall, and I could feel the effects mentally and emotionally as well. Starting in January, I’ve joined a fitness challenge at my school involving activity trackers and am planning to run both my school’s 5K and the Warrior Dash again. The new challenge will be finding a goal for the fall season and really maintaining this habit, building towards strength in all areas of my life. So far, I’m thinking about some fall hikes, in addition to finding a race or two.

Creativity is the Key

One of the big 2014 personal goals I really regret missing is that I did not make time for writing a priority in my life this year. I enjoyed the morning pages I wrote on my artist’s way but didn’t make any headway on my personal essay goals, and never quite got back on track after the mean reds derailed me. This spring, I’m trying again, in the hopes that working on filling the well will work its magic once again. I’m already thinking of incorporating small area concerts as artist dates, and even dabbling in clay. I’m figuring out what inspires me and feels enriching to me, so now I need to weave it more closely into my life. It’s also important to me not to use time/scheduling as a excuse; I made plenty of time for binge-watching and internet usage that did not enrich my life or make me feel healthier in any way.

Embrace Adventures with Grace

There are a lot of cliches you could throw in here–lemonade, curveballs, punches–but the essence is that this year, I want to surprise myself in good ways as well as deal with unexpected challenges gracefully. There are places places in my city and experiences I want to have, and I want to seek them out again this year. A fascinating article I read recently asked women to think How Have You Made Yourself Proud This Year? In 2014, I learned some new things about myself after shifting with some stormy winds, and I feel all the better for it now. I tell my kids consistently that you cannot control everything that happens to you in life, but you can control how you react to anything that arises. I am proud of how I handled anything that came my way this year, and hope that at the end of 2015, I’ll be able to say the same.

Strength, grace, creativity: three core and guiding values I hope to use to define 2015.

The Palace

On the glass. Post player. Forwards, point guards, rebounds. Perimeter. Threes. Backcourt, buckets, box out.

These are all terms I’ve come to know and love since becoming a rabid, dedicated fan of our school basketball teams. Now that basketball season has rolled around again, I’m checking the home game schedule, chatting with players about this year’s new prospects, and devotedly hoping that we can triumph over our biggest conference rival, who beat us in last year’s championship game in a heart-stopping sequence of play that was thrilling to watch.

I actually combed through my archives before drafting this post because I just couldn’t believe that I haven’t written about this before, but then I remembered that I turned an old partially drafted blog post about watching basketball into a short creative nonfiction piece for Indiana English. Now that’s it been published, I feel free to reprint it here below:

The Palace

Jackie Regales

The students call it the palace, the cathedral of athletics. They crowd the bleachers and stomp their feet and chant and clap their hands; they lean over their clenched fists and watch the girls run up and down the court in matching red and white uniforms. They shout the names of the girls they know, and their voices echo in counterpoint with the squeaks of soles and the thumping heartbeat of the basketball on the floorboards. Some are ladies in waiting, yearning for their chance at the throne.

And the players! The players, they are incredible; they are young and fierce and graceful, their faces intense and their movements quick. The freshman point guard storms the basket, and the junior power forward dominates the rebound shot again and again. The sophomore sensation is tapping the ball out of the air, she is passing it behind her back before you know she has it, she is on the foul line again and again because the other team knows they have to stay close, they know what she can do if they let her. The Catholic school team is playing city ball, throwing elbows like confetti and taunting her as she tenses for the free throw. These Catholic girls are tough, they are hungry; they are the insurgents, clamoring at the gates. At every turn, they are a moment of ahead of where our girls want to be, but even as they lose, our queens hold their noble heads high.

We are their teachers, and we have come to worship too, here under the bright lights and steel beams. We sit on narrow hard bleachers in our high heels, with our bags full of ungraded tests and freshly copied handouts, families waiting at home for a dinner we haven’t cooked. Some of us are remembering the waves of adulation that crashed over our own regal adolescent heads, and others of us have been watching from these bleachers all our lives, knowing that mental agility and grace will never win us this particular crown. We watch our girls, these amazing girls playing their hearts out on these shining boards, these girls that we see in the halls and in our classrooms, these girls we try to inspire. We see these girls’ faces, we shout their names too; we hope they know we are here, here in their lives, when they need us, when they are ready. We are here in the palace, hoping for a corner of these crowded hours, waiting for them to notice our offering and graciously accept it.

Slice of Life: Holiday Fair

This past Saturday, our school had its annual Holiday Fair. You’ve probably seen something like it before: moonbounce over here, tables of women selling handmade jewelry and custom-made doll clothes over there, green wreaths and baked goods for sale, streams of people bustling around, children running everywhere, begging parents for slices of pizza and just one more ticket pleassseeeeee.

These kinds of events are always too overwhelming for me to handle for long, but I feel obligated as someone who values the community to come and participate anyway. My girls brought a friend and they evaporated once I doled out some cash, so I was on my own until my volunteer shift began. Luckily, there were a series of student performances in our theater at the same time, so I got to sit in the semidarkness and listen to a young male a capella group, followed by a different group of young men playing jazzed-up versions of holiday standards. Listing to recorded music is one of the constant threads of my day, but any chance to hear live music reminds just how soul-satisfying it is to me.

I had agreed to help staff the goldfish booth as a seventh grade parent, so at 2:00, I found myself warding off dented ping-pong balls, asking children to stand right on the line as they tossed their balls in hopes of winning a goldfish, carefully decanted into a plastic bag by my daughters and a few of their friends. “Two tickets, three balls, come win a goldfish!” we chanted as the children and their parents walked by. I chatted with a few parents I recognized and cheered for some of my ninth grade students as they valiantly tried to win a fish for themselves or younger siblings.

I’ve been a little worried about my girls and friendship lately–nothing in the bullying realm, but what I think are just some of the classic shuffles and weirdness of middle school. Part of the challenge is that their friendships have less and less to do with me; I’m not always friends with the parents of girls they want to get to know, circles and cliques and strata have developed that I am unaware of, girls who seem perfectly average to me are so obviously the popular girls, Mom, why don’t you get it?! We’ve left the Playdate Era far behind, and this brave new world of adolescent socializing is unsettling for all of us. I try not to hover, try to let them navigate it, try not to blame myself for not pushing them to be more sports-focused when they were younger, as so much socially seems to revolve around sports. I tell myself all the wise pieces of advice I’ve dished out to parents over the years who were concerned about their daughters.

So we drove out to the suburbs to bring a friend with us, and I let them stock up this weekend on lip gloss and iTunes cards for the friends they want to exchange gifts with, and I watched them, not too obviously, as they swirled and mingled with the other girls at the goldfish booth. They whispered and giggled, ran away to get more tickets and put each other in “jail,” and asked to stay an extra hour. When we got home, they both chatted excitedly about the fun they’d had, and I put my worries away for the day, satisfied I had done what I could, knowing that the worry would surface again in the future and I’d have to trust them and myself all over again.

This is my first Slice of Life post!

Wrap-Up: My Time at NCTE 2014

As a first-time attendee, I did not know quite what to expect as my department headed to the annual NCTE convention, but even if I had developed detailed expectations, I’m fairly sure they would have been exceeded. We only stayed for Friday and Saturday, but even in those two days, I absorbed so much, gained such inspiration, and sparked so many new ideas that I feel it was an incredible investment of my time and energy, even at a time of year when I am feeling even more depleted than usual.

Here’s some brief descriptions of the workshops I attended and found most useful; for each, I took pages of notes on the ideas and materials presented, but also found myself filling the margins with ways to adapt the topics for my own classes. Any teacher knows this is the sign of truly beneficial professional development, when you gain global insight into a theme, text, or instructional method, while also acquiring ways to immediately put the theory into practice in your own classroom.


Text and Image or Text as Image? New Approaches to Teaching Visual and Media Literacy: This was a great way to start off my NCTE experience: thought-provoking yet extremely practical, with plenty of examples and ideas to make me feel energized right away. These presenters focused on how we can synthesize texts and images in our classrooms, thinking about how visual elements enhance texts and helping students become “selective and active creators of content.” They gave examples of texts interpreted as images, texts remixed into images, image to text, and images inspiring text, inspiring me to think about new ideas as well as ways to deepen and better assess projects I already do.

Portfolios: Reflective Processes for Independence and Innovation: This presentation made me think globally about the value and possibilities inherent in “making thinking visible” for my students, and how that can deepen their learning, enhance our classroom community, and help them see themselves as scholars. Like many of the convention presentations, these Wisconsin teachers have thankfully made their slides available for post-convention viewing. Even though I teach in a very different environment from these presenters, I gained so much insight in to how to aid student in being more reflective about their work and about themselves as scholars-in-training.

Queering(ing)Literature in the Secondary English Classroom: I attended this one partly through my work as our school’s GSA sponsor, but also because I’ve made some tentative inroads into using critical theory in my senior elective and wanted to think more productively about how I might do so. The discussion and resources (like this set of inclusive frameworks), helped me push my thinking in directions such as wondering how I might lead my seniors in a discussion of “queering” One Hundred Years of Solitude .

Interactive Notebook Foldables: After getting shut out of a “featured session” that was jam-packed, I ended up in this one, which ended up answering some questions I’ve had about “foldables” since I read a pair of blog entries from a high school history teacher who used them with success in her classroom. Foldables are all over Pinterest as well, but without seeing concrete examples, I never quite understood how they would be used with my classes. This session focused specifically on their usage with poetry lessons and included Dinah Zike, who seems to be the queen of foldables and refers to them as “manipulatives for learning.” After this session, which involved us all making our own foldable book with instructions and examples, I can easily see how these could be useful in vocabulary work as well as a prewriting tool for my ninth graders when they write poetry explications in the spring. I even thought ahead to next summer and how I might use them with my CTY kids.


Methods of Teaching Writing: Power and Cohesion in a Writing Curriculum: This workshop started my Saturday off with a starstruck jolt, as Lucy Calkins was one of the presenters. While she is known primarily for her work at the elementary school level, I have found her work very helpful in thinking through how to incorporate elements of writing workshops in my classes. This session was no exception, as Calkins and the other presenters gave me structured and insightful ways to think about how I conference with my students as they are working on drafts, as well as ways to think about mini-lessons and whole-group instruction. One topic touched on a puzzle that’s been worrying me lately: how can I help my students see that in writing their successful personal essays, they’ve been working on skills that will help them with critical essays as well? Again, I felt I gained both insight on how to think globally about these dilemmas as well as some practical suggestions.

Letter-Essays: Engaging Kids in Social and Analytical Response to Stories: Another brush with someone I’ve long admired: Nancie Atwell, who writes primarily for 7th-8th grade teachers, but again, in whose work I’ve found much food for thought. One of my long-debated ideas is how to incorporate independent reading into my 9th grade course, and Atwell’s devoted scholarship on the subject is the main reason I keep returning to it, even though it is not customary in my division at my school as a year-long practice. This workshop focused on one aspect of how Atwell and her teachers use “letter-essays” to communicate with their students about what they’ve been reading, and I found the examples they shared fascinating and inspiring. I even brainstormed about a mini-choice-reading project I could do with my seniors over spring break and added The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers to my wishlist as soon as I got home.

Understanding the Middle East Through Literature: I chose this session because after truly enjoying teaching Persepolis, I realized that I felt confident about teaching graphic novels but not very much about placing the work in a greater context of literature from the region. This session included the work of two teachers who have been teaching semester-long senior electives on the topic for years, which was immediately inspiring to me because our senior English classes work on the same system. The materials presented were so comprehensive and engaging that I emailed my department chair this weekend to ask about proposing a similar elective in the 2015-2016 school year. Found myself a winter break project, clearly, and I think a course of this nature could be so enriching for our students. I am already looking forward to asking our Arabic teacher for assistance, as well as one of our history teachers who spent a few years living in Turkey.

When I got back, I saw I had missed workshops by some great teacher-bloggers, including Epiphany in Baltimore on John Steinbeck, Glenda Funk on Landscapes of Truth and Fiction, Dana Huff on online writing workshop techniques, Nerdy Book Club and more! As you can see, I covered a fair amount of intellectual ground in the hectic two days I was able to spend, though of course I feel like I missed out on some great sessions as well. I also got to hear an amazing address by Marian Wright Edelman and seeJacqueline Woodson appear on a panel, fresh off her National Book Award win. This doesn’t even include my trips through the jam-packed exhibition hall, where I managed to pick up an armload of free Poetry Out Loud materials, get a free copy of David Levithan’s Every Day, signed in person by the author himself, as well as a free Agatha Christie-themed totebag for my daughter, a nifty Scholastic shoulder bag (also free!), along with an assortment of catalogs, posters, and other giveaways. I don’t know when I’ll be able to make it back, but I’ve added a few goals to my professional dreams (attending, and then presenting), and re-experienced the joy of truly worthwhile professional development in a community of dedicated colleagues I’m proud to call my peers.

Filling the Well

Without deliberate intentions on my part, 2014 has turned out to be quite the year of travel for me.

In January, I spent several days in New York City with a dear friend and then traveled to Philadelphia as one of the chaperones for our Model UN club. In New York, modern art stopped me in my tracks, and in Philadelphia, I wandered the legendary museum of art and felt inspired around every corner. At this point in the year, I was working my path on The Artist’s Way, and I remember jotting down impressions and fragments of poems in Philadelphia and feeling renewed.

June saw me in Nashville with a good friend and colleague, soaking up professional development training and marveling at the Johnny Cash museum. We’ve been conducting our first CFG meetings this year, and it’s been a supportive and challenging experience for me, the other facilitators and the participants. This week, I spent a few days in Las Vegas with my sister, touring a neon graveyard and feeling dazzled by more lights and fabulosity than I’ve ever seen before. She was there for a conference, but we managed to squeeze in some fun before I left and her schedule got much busier. Tomorrow, I’ll be diving into more development and inspiration during my first trip to the annual NCTE convention. I’m already inspired by teachers like Epiphany in Baltimore, who is presenting at several panels and is a repeat presenter and attendee. I’m hoping to get to hear from teachers like Jim Burke, whose work has been so helpful to me, and teachers whose names I don’t know yet, but are doing such exciting things in their classrooms and open to sharing with peers in the field.

Looking back, each trip offered rich experiences and sources of inspiration. Personally, this year has been one of the hardest I’ve ever experienced (in non-blog-friendly ways), but one of the saving graces has been these trips, journeys outside of my daily juggling act, time to rediscover what makes me energized and what I’m capable of when I’m navigating the world outside of my regular little family bubble.

News Analysis, Halloween Style

Our first quarter just ended, I turned in grades and comments this morning, my students are turning in personal essays before we start our next text, and I expect Friday’s half-day to be fairly chaotic, so I’ve been thinking about how best to transition between units while still building skills. Here’s the email I’m sending my students as classwork over the next few days:

Hello students,

The New York Times has a feature called “Test Yourself,” designed to help students use context clues to detect vocabulary usage using articles from the newspaper itself. At the bottom of each “test yourself” exercise is a link to the original article. See how well you do on figuring out the context clues, and when you get the end of the “test,” read the full article and answer the following questions for each in a Word document. Whatever you don’t finish today, we will continue on Friday.

1. How well did you do on figuring out the vocabulary in context?
2. What was the headline for the original news article? Explain who, what, when, where, why of this article.
3. Did you find it an interesting read? Why or why not?
4. How did the author keep you engaged as a reader? Think about techniques, phrases and sentences you found especially well-done or written.


Ghost Hunting in the Asylum

Theme Park Frights

Halloween on the Subway

Scary New Pumpkins

American Horror Story

How to Make a Black Hole

In case you end up using this with your students, all NYT articles linked through their Learning Network section are free to read. I’m planning to have my students work together fairly independently on these, but you could easily split them into small groups and have each group analyze one piece.

Girls Who Wear Glasses


Eighteen years ago, I swore I would never go back to wearing glasses. I had spent too long feeling trapped behind them, hobbled by my terrible vision, held back from ever feeling attractive by the weight of plastic and glass I carried around on my face. But here I am today, wearing glasses and feeling liberated.

I got my first pair of glasses when I was six or seven, already a voracious reader and thrilled to be able to see the words I loved more clearly. In those early years, my frames went from pink to blue to amber, always heavy plastic containing even heavier lenses as my vision grew worse and worse. As I entered middle school, I learned that my heavy glasses marked me clearly as the super-nerd I was, awash in gifted classes, completely clumsy at sports, always with a book in my hand. In high school, I grew to hate my glasses, agreeing with Dorothy Parker’s famous warning: Men seldom make passes/ At girls who wear glasses and bemoaning the fact that I had to add braces to the package for three long years. I never had a pair of prescription sunglasses, so on every summer day, you could find me squinting in the glare or fumbling around blindly in the water. Finally, after working in an ophthalmologist’s office, he gave me my first contacts as a graduation present. I remember feeling so grateful, especially because the first pair was ready in time for my senior prom, and I truly felt like I had left my ugly-duckling years behind.

So why change?

This past Saturday night, I went for my sister’s birthday, dinner, dancing, and a punk rock show that stretched long past midnight. I wore my new glasses, jeans, sneakers, and a black t-shirt I got at the Johnny Cash museum in Nashville this summer. I pulled my hair into a ponytail, wore no make-up, danced the night away, attracted admiring attention, and generally had a blast. Fifteen years ago, the time in my life when I went out dancing or to shows regularly, I would never have dressed to go out in such a…..comfortable ensemble. But instead, I felt fantastic. Relaxed. Ready to twist and twirl under a disco ball to the sounds of New Order, the Eurhythmics, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, ready to wake up the next day without terrible aches in my feet and knees from “cute” heels, ready to stay out till all hours and not feel like my eyes were burning or drying up completely.

Maybe the truth is that it was never my glasses holding me back at all; maybe it was my lack of confidence all along, my inability to see a beautiful self that could include “face jewelry,” as I heard one of my students say recently. Maybe the cocoon I hid in was of my own making, and the chrysalis could only fall away once I was ready to step into a new way of seeing, all my own.

I’ll still keep contacts around, especially for the summer months, but it’s great to have the option, and I like how confident and comfortable I feel in my glasses now, standing in my own light and looking far ahead.

The Opposite of Loneliness

It’s like I can hear her talking right to me, my student said, and all the students around her murmured in agreement, and I knew I had found another great teachable piece of writing.

We were reading Marina Keegan’s essay, The Opposite of Loneliness, as a model text to help them get ready for writing personal essays. A former student of mine had bounded into my classroom two weeks before, saying, “Ms. Regales, you’ve got to read this book!” so I had taken her copy of The Opposite of Loneliness home with me and read it fairly quickly, enjoying the book itself very much but also thrilled to be able to tell her how much I had liked it.

Marina Keegan was a young and incredibly talented writer who died in a car crash five days after her graduation from Yale. Her work was collected by her parents and some of her professors for posthumous publication, and the shadow of her untimely death is hard to put aside while reading her pieces. However, I think the book stands alone as a fresh young voice, and the personal essays are strong, well-written, accessible, and provide excellent lessons in voice, focus, imagery, alliteration, and many other tools in any writer’s toolbox. Several of her pieces from the book, like the title essay and Why we care about whales (would make a great mentor text for “why we care about _____” essays), are available online, and I also chose “Against the Grain,” an essay she wrote about having celiac disease, as a longer example. Again, my students loved it, dissecting paragraphs and discussing her humor and voice, while recognizing how skilfully she portrays her mother and her childhood self. Her essays show her skill, but they also show my students how beautiful work can come from seemingly mundane experiences.

Teaching mentor texts as a scaffolding for teaching writing is a technique I’m still mastering, especially since most of the writing I assign is standard literary analysis. The Poet to Poet project I did last year was a successful experiment with mentor texts, and as a complement to Persepolis, we decided to begin our 9th grade year with personal essays. The first time around, I used This I Believe essays as a framework, but I found that for whatever reason, the payoff wasn’t what I was expecting, so I knew I had to tweak it some this year. In addition to choosing new mentor texts, I’m giving them a menu of options, including This I Believe, but also some current college essay prompts, as well as the Letters About Literature contest, with examples from the previous winners. Allowing for more options, while still guided, will hopefully be inspiring to my students.

We’ll see how it goes!


Think of your oldest friendship, the one that started back when you were kids or teens or even young adults, just off on your first great adventure. Do you still talk, or have you lost touch in the swirl of adult life? Is there a certain song that plays when you think of her?

Today I’m thinking about my friend Carolyn, and here’s the song that’s running on a loop in my mind:

We met our freshman year in college, about eighteen years ago, and there are so many songs I could use to soundtrack our friendship. The songs we blasted in our dorm room, the songs we heard at concerts and in dance clubs and at parties, the songs we played on repeat because we thought they were singing our lives, the songs we thought summed up our hearts and relationships. But this one, which came out about halfway through our time in college, somehow became the one, the song we thought of as our song, the song we used to scribble across the bottom of our letters to each other (yes! actual letters!):

Everything’s gonna be all right
Rockabye, rockabye
Everything’s gonna be all right
Rockabye, rockabye

We wrote these words on dry-erase boards, on postcards and lined paper letters we sent to each other from England and Spain, on birthday cards and across phone lines. What we really meant was, “As long as we’re together, as long as we’re friends, what could possibly go wrong?” For me, it was her strength that inspired this feeling of safety. She had already survived some incredible losses by the time we met, and yet I always felt there was no challenge that could make her lose her cool, from how to separate yourself from a toxic relationship to how to find a hotel room when you’ve just gotten off the train in Florence and speak no Italian. She was, and is, funny and beautiful and loyal and smart, and her laughter is infectious, but more than anything else, it’s her determination and fierce ability to love that continues to inspire me today.

As an adult, it upsets me to know that I haven’t always lived up to that ideal, haven’t always been the friend to her that she deserves. During the hazy years of newborns and newly wed, I basically disappeared, and while she was my bridesmaid, I wasn’t there to celebrate her wedding. I wasn’t there for her, too consumed by my own uncertainties and fears. It’s one of the greatest gifts of my life that she forgave me, and I will always be grateful for her capacity to do so, to revive that trademark loyalty she brings to every relationship she has. Once she is in your corner, you know to your core that you can count on her, and it’s a blessing to have that back in my life.

Over recent years, we’ve watched each other’s kids grow up, gone apple-picking and bowling and swimming, eaten birthday cake and pizza, traded recipes and passed down princess dresses, jumped in bouncy castles and snapped photos of our four girls together. She’s chosen to know me for so long, someone who knows who I used to be, before I knew what I wanted to do with my life or even the kind of person I really wanted to be. I know I wouldn’t be who I am today without knowing her, without learning so much about friendship and love from her. I can only hope I’ve given a fraction of what she’s given me.

Now she and her adorable family are moving far away, seeking sunshine beaches and on-tap babysitting in the form of loving grandparents, and while I’m so happy for her, I can’t help but think of myself and what I’ll do without being able to see her. I know this is the age of digital friendship, of social networks and text messages that can cross the miles much quicker that our letters did, but I can’t convince my heart that there won’t be a hole in my life with her name on it.

Maybe we’ll drive down someday and show up at her door, or maybe I’ll have to start writing her letters again, and if I do, I’ll write these lines across the bottom, and be so glad to know she’ll be singing them back to me.

Everything’s gonna be all right
Rockabye, bye bye

Anxiety Crab

anxiety crab

Have you gone to a Paint Nite event? They seem to be sweeping the country, or at least the Mid-Atlantic, or at least the women I know, who keep posting pictures on Facebook, all holding up a variation of the same painting, all with smiles on their faces and ecstatic posts about the fun they’d had.

My school recently held a painting evening with a local group, and after hearing a colleague/friend rave about paint nights, I decided to sign up. This is parent conference season, as well as being a few weeks from the end of first quarter, as well as busy times for the student groups I advise, but taking a few hours to myself sounded like a good self-care strategy, and painting seemed like a fun experiment for the evening.

I decided to walk to school, arriving a little more sweaty than I had hoped, to find that my friend hadn’t been able to register after all. While I knew some of the other participants from work, everyone else had arrived in chummy little groups, and I definitely felt like the odd one out. Mingling and making small talk is not one of my strengths–it’s one of my fear triggers, certainly, and I could feel my heart begin to race.

Paint nights operate on a “see it, do it” system, with an instructor and example at the front, walking you through each step as you reproduce each stroke, with plenty of room to choose your own colors and add your own flourishes. Our group was working on a crab, that iconic Maryland symbol, using acrylic paints on a rectangle of canvas. I work well on the “see it, do it” method in my life, but I haven’t had to be a student in a setting where I don’t excel in many years. As I lined up to make my paper-plate-palette, I put dollops of each color around the rim, only to have the instructor tease me a little about the piles of paint I’d taken. I began to twitch, wondering if I was doing it all wrong.

Wait, I hear you saying. It’s a Paint Nite. Why would you be nervous? Drink some wine, slap some paint on the canvas, have a solo night out and relax. Seriously. Dial it down a notch.

That’s exactly what I would have done, but sometimes, when you’re navigating some personal quicksand, it’s harder to stay steady on your feet, to maintain the balance you work so hard to achieve. Also I don’t drink, so the wine was not going to fix things.

I’m doing this all wrong, I texted my sister, who’s been my rock lately. NO WAY YOU’RE AWESOME, she texted back. I DEMAND CRAB PICS.

I had stepped aside from the group to send my text messages, and before I sat back down, I gave myself a minute to do a little self-examining. What exactly am I so afraid of in this moment? What distorted thoughts are getting under my skin right now? I decided that the idea of “doing it wrong” had somehow gotten into a loop in my mind, and I’d lost track of why I’d thought this might be fun in the first place. Instead of a relaxing activity, I’d turned this into a risky experiment, when really there was nothing at stake here except my own insecurity. I’ve been thinking a lot about perfectionism, and where in my life I feel paralyzed at the idea that I might not measure up, and how setting high standards for myself might be shutting me out of stretching myself in new ways. Did I come into this experience because I have always longed for a homemade painting of a crab? Of course not. I came into it wanting some novelty and some joy, and the only obstacle in my way was myself.

I sat down, picked up the brush, and turned on an internal soundtrack: my favorite current burst of sonic bubblegum, which coincidentally encourages us to let go of whatever might be bringing us down. I dabbed on paint, was a little dismayed when it seemed way too dark, listened to the instructor talk about adding shadow and dimension, and revised my painting several times. I chose cool tones, watching my grapey-purple and cerulean crab float against a tranquil blue background.

Gaze upon my Anxiety Crab, I told my sister when I texted her the picture. I brought it home and tilted it on our piano, a tangible reminder of what I tell my students all the time about the perfect being the enemy of the good, and of how valuable and important it can be to take a risk and see what you are capable of when you let yourself try.