Tag Archives: empathy

Gap Year FAQ

What is unemployment? If no one tells you that you’ve lost your job, are you really unemployed?

Generally speaking, the cessation of payment is a strong indicator that one’s job has been terminated.

Notification is a different story. I, for example, notified myself of my own impending unemployment. In February 2017, my husband, a full-time boarding school teacher, did not receive a renewal contract, so I, a part-time teacher and his partner, by extension did not either. My supervisor (the administrator responsible for contract renewals) did not discuss the matter with me, in person, in writing, or via email. I officially found out well after my peers did, in an email sent from the school’s business manager, who attributed the dissolution of my job to a lack of/low enrollment in the 7th and 8th grade student body. He intended, I think, to soften the blow: It’s economics, Jules. It’s not personal.

My employee evaluations were solid, and I completed every task asked of me (even the uncompensated ones), surpassing the requirements expected of part-time staff. I believed that my supervisor and I were on amicable terms, and, for several weeks, my confidence bolstered by favorable comments from the school’s higher ups, I reserved hope that I could continue working at the school in another capacity – potentially allowing my family to remain situated in the same house and community – until the time came when I realized that would not be the case. It felt intensely personal. People have disappeared from my life before, but for an employer to do so was a novel first.


I heard you moved. Where are you now?

In the fourth quarter, the school administration raced to disassociate from my family, and we reciprocated, vacating the faculty house in which we’d spent that last nine years, cleaning and preparing it for its new tenants within 36 lightning-quick hours. I documented the process on social media, using captions such as The Purge, The Big Move, Good Riddance, and, on a particularly bad day, Our Former Employer is Satan.

We took the carport and the trampoline, which we’d purchased, and dismantled the monkey bars we’d built, giving away the wood to friends for tinder. We left no trace of ourselves. Many coworkers – those with whom we’d worked and laughed, and broken bread, and raised our kids – didn’t blink or say goodbye. They avoided eye contact in shared workspaces. They drove by our house, and they watched us mop sweat from our faces as we carried load after load of pieces of our life to the ever-growing dumpster. They heard us cry on our front porch and try to diplomatically rationalize the school’s motivations to our children, who responded with greater maturity than we could have imagined.

It took several weeks to secure a rental property, during which time I slept little and fought nightmares. Ultimately, a neighbor took pity on us and agreed to rent us his house. Half a dozen school families, whose students my husband and I had taught successively, pledged to help us on moving day. When that day came, two of twelve “definites” showed up.


What is the hardest part about being unemployed?

This question has no single answer. Answers vary widely depending on experience and circumstance. My biggest challenge has been the shunning from former “friends” because it bleeds into so many different aspects of daily life: basic social courtesy, traditions, the definition of a functioning community. Our discontinued status at the school renders us invisible to our peers. Even today, when I encounter a former coworker at the library or the grocery store, most wince and/or avert their gaze, stumbling backwards to increase the physical distance between us. I offer them a smile and a greeting while seething inside. I used to think of myself as part of a great community, but it was only a construct of my imagination.


Why take a gap year, at your age?

Though we aren’t high school students trying to find ourselves before committing to a college path, the spirit of a gap year suits our current situation: we wanted to find out what to do next. My husband and I considered ourselves “lifers” at our former school. We were committed to the school’s mission and hoped both to teach our own children and to see them learn with esteemed coworkers. We dreamed our kids would matriculate from the school. The school did not return our loyalty. My husband and I found ourselves in middle age, rootless and directionless, reevaluating what we wanted from the next chapter of our lives.

Of the five major life stressors that jeopardize the stability of individuals and families, leaving the school confronted us with two: moving and starting a new job. (The other three stressors are the birth of a child, marriage, and death.) We didn’t want to act out of desperation: take last minute jobs in a random city that we might end up despising, only to job search and uproot again the following year. A hasty move compounded by a second hasty move seemed like a fast track to a lot of bad juju, and a costly one at that, so we made the decision that best supported our family’s needs. We have yet to discover whether we made right choice or not.


How can you afford a gap year?

My husband and I have been continuously employed since we were teenagers. In the last decade, I’ve held multiple jobs at once, concurrently freelancing, tutoring, and teaching to maximize my revenue. We agreed early on about the necessity of long-term financial planning and we’ve been aggressively saving and investing ever since. Rather than acquire additional debt, we subsidize unemployment payments by cannibalizing our retirement fund, playing a game of risk with our security net.


What are the benefits of taking a gap year?

If money was of no concern, my husband might never return to teaching, because he relishes his newfound liberty. He sleeps in late and stays up until the earliest morning hours playing video games and reading. He speaks his mind and eschews shaving. Sometimes he doesn’t leave the house. And he’s okay with it.

I have also benefited from a certain freedom. My former self, who I’ll call Teacher Julia, used to do battle on weekdays – nag the kids to move quickly so I could drop them off at school, rush to the dining hall to inhale reconstituted eggs for breakfast, and hustle to the classroom for a precious hour of prep before the teaching day began. I graded student work feverishly, my eyes attuned to when the clock struck 3:00. My children came home and the battle continued: urging them to do their homework while I finished gathering materials for the following day’s lessons, losing patience when they had questions and needed help. Did I ever stop to say thanks that my children had returned home safely one more time, or take a break from working long enough to hug them and breathe in their warm, syrupy hair?

While my husband’s drive for intellectual inquiry will eventually propel him back into the classroom, this Gap Year has shown me that I don’t want to go back to being Teacher Julia. She was not a happy person or an attentive mother.


So, um… What do you do every day?

Until one (preferably both) of us finds a suitable job, we carry on as usual, accomplishing much the same daily chores and obligations we used to, albeit with much less stress. I send the kids off with kisses every morning and wait eagerly to see their bright eyes as they come home in the afternoons.


What are your goals/objectives for life after the Gap Year?

  1. Obtain meaningful employment
  2. Relocate to an affordable home in a new town
  3. Start over

Simple, right?


Have you reached a place of acceptance?

Friends have likened leaving the school to escaping from a destructive relationship: you don’t know how bad it was until you get away from it. In our last year of teaching, the school’s motto seemed to be The beatings will continue until morale improves, or, as Harry Potter’s Aunt Marge says: “A good thrashing is what’s needed in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred.” We saw (and experienced) countless random outbursts and rash, demoralizing criticisms. A change to the administrative roster caused ripple effects – thrashing upon thrashing – that led to roughly one-third of the school’s faculty being let go or voluntarily opting to seek employment elsewhere for the 2017-2018 academic year. In hindsight, it was time to walk away from a rapidly souring romance. We weren’t the only ones who did.

© 2017 Julia Moris-Hartley

* * *

Thanks especially to MO, FM, and RD for the kindnesses you showed us when kindness seemed in short supply; and to all the friends, near and far, who stood by us during the painful transition. We are very grateful for your support!


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Mad Love

No pressure.

“Do you hate me forever or just for a little while?” I pose the question to my daughter, Rory, in earnest. She is fixated on a local organic food vendor, who advertises free kittens along the walk home from school. Rory stops at the shop every day, obsessed. She wants “brand new twin kittens,” despite bringing home her very own kitten, Ginger, a year ago.

Rory starts to argue her case, then pauses. She gazes up at me with brimming eyes. “I could never hate you.”

I shake my head and say, “Honey, it’s inevitable that you will hate me at times, but I can only hope it will be for small pockets and not forever.”

Rory sniffles against the back of her hand. She pushes honey-blonde hair away from her teary eyes and sighs. “No, mom,” she says. “I love you.”


The Girl Who Didn’t Particularly Envision Having Children has evolved impressively over the last decade. One day I was a numbers whiz at a state university, and the next found me covered in souring milk and a dusting of cornstarch. Every stage of parenting has been a coup: Kai feeding and going back to sleep in his tiny car seat each morning; the lump stage; the Darth Vader phase, each thick breath issuing from deep within; toddling! Such a visually satisfying verb.

Then came Rory, a gift of more delight. Kai’s social cognition blossomed at the boarding school where I work; Rory, born into the joyful chaos of communal educational coexistence, flourished with minimal encouragement. Kai learned to read, and could hardly be suppressed in his eagerness to learn more. He manifested sensitivity; his roots grew strong and resilient in the physical, sensory world. Rory assumed her place in somewhere in the atmosphere, her mind wrapped up in clouds, channeling her grace from solar flares and stars. In between days, they grew into little people of their own mettle.

I often reread the notes I scribbled into journals for their later years, remembering each step of their development. Each phase was my favorite phase, but this time, right now, is the best yet.


One morning not long ago, Kai, a habitual early riser, entered the kitchen, clutching the back of his neck and sobbing.

“It hurts, Mom!” he wailed. “Every time I move my head, it hurts!”

Kai never complains and he rarely cries. I calmed him down as much as I could, though my own thoughts raced. He suffered through a bowl of cereal, whimpering each time he moved his head. Rory pushed away her cereal bowl and looked at Kai, her brows knit.

I gaped in awe as Rory started to cry too.


It happened again a few days later. Rory fell off her bike, scraping a centimeter-wide patch of skin from her finger. She ran into the house, wailing, with Kai following closely behind. Kai stood in the bathroom doorway as we cleaned and treated the wound, his expression serious. Huge tears fell down Rory’s cheeks. She exhaled raggedly. When we were done, Kai patted Rory’s arm and said, “I’m sorry, Rory. I wish I could take this for you.”


The days are not all joy and wonder, but the proportion of joy largely outweighs the arguments and occasional hurt feelings between Kai and Rory. They empathize and laugh with one another, but are also remarkably adept at picking petty fights and pressing the “buttons” they know will aggravate the other. So I divide my time between them and measure my good fortune by moments.

The other day, Kai and I shopped for sunglasses. I tried on an oversized purple pair and waggled my eyes at him. “Yes?” I asked. He shrugged. I picked a different pair: “How about these?” He grunted a little. The third pair won. “Mom!” he said, grinning. “You look like a beach babe!”

Exploring the lighting section of a home improvement store, I ask Rory to pretend she’s building her own house. What lights would she choose? She points to the Tiffany-style pendants, the biggest chandeliers, the pinecone sconces, and a floor lamp that looks like a four-headed lily on acid. I watch her as she dashes among the aisles, her eyes fixed towards the ceiling. What a bright place her mind must be.


Over breakfast, Kai says, “I wish I had another blanket.” He is so matter of fact about it. The weather’s been getting colder, and I realize, with a pang, that he’s still sleeping in summer bedding. Though the seasonal clothing and bedding swap is one of my lesser-loved parental responsibilities, his bed receives flannel sheets and oversized comforters within minutes. For undemanding, sensitive, wonderful Kai – anything.

I’ve had girlfriends ask my opinion on having children, to which I reply that it is a deeply personal decision – not one for everyone – but add that it has been the most rewarding experience I could imagine. I did not anticipate the full force of this wild affliction called motherhood. I would do anything for my children. Just tell me where to set the moon.


My practical mind knows that more kittens will not complete our household in the way that Rory imagines, but my heart fights a strong desire to let her adopt one more cat. Kittens are gateway pets, and I must not acquiesce for fear of sending Rory entirely the wrong message about the economics of needs and wants.

This does not stop us from visiting the shop on a brisk Saturday morning. Four kittens mew in a wire crate on the front steps: a pair of larger white ones, and a tiny pair of grey-black tabbies with luminous sapphire eyes. Rory addresses them each by name. She eyes me as she wriggles her fingers through gaps in the crate. I envision Rory and the kittens frolicking in some magical, twilit meadow, enshrouded by rainbows and butterflies. Only a heartless monster could say no. “Let’s see if they’re still here next weekend,” I say, hurrying back to the car.

My resolve returns once I am freed from the influence of the kittens. I tell Rory as much when we get back home, and am relieved when she says she does not hate me. As she walks away, I marvel for the millionth time that this intelligent, hilarious, compassionate individual who stands almost as tall as I do started out in the universe as one microscopic egg and sperm. In this moment, I am proud and humbled and so very in love.

Ginger, the gateway kitten.

Ginger, the gateway kitten.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015


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Little Owl


If I knew then what I know now…

My son, Kai, cried incessantly as a newborn. He breastfed around the clock, never satisfied by the milk I produced: his begonia pink lips suckled the air in his rare moments of sleep, and begged my knuckles for more while he was awake. I slept little during his first few months, withering under Kai’s wakeful, insistent hunger, feeling at times more like a cow than a woman. Sleep-deprived, I cried constantly… just like Kai.

Kai didn’t – wouldn’t – sleep in his crib, so we converted a second car seat to hold him after we finally cajoled him into slumber. I fed Kai in dimmed lamplight before work each morning, while outside coyotes rustled in the pre-dawn respite from Tucson’s heat. I placed Kai back in his seat before leaving, worrying my thumb across his forehead, over and over, to soothe him. His eyelids slowly drooped until flaxen eyelashes fanned his plump cheeks and I made my escape, creeping out the front door like a sour-smelling thief.

I’m embarrassed now by how long it took me to pinpoint the source of Kai’s newborn restlessness. My husband and I initially attributed his discontent to colic and our glaring inexperience. Over time, though, I began to notice small hints of something else.

Kai is sensitive. Not sensitive in the cruel, soft-bellied way that society attributes to weakness and “wimps,” but, rather, emotionally astute. He “reads” people’s moods and implied nuances the way a gardener knows the veins and freckles of his plants – the health of the crenellations in tender green leaves, the direction in which new shoots might unfurl. He understands the intersection of physical and spiritual the way a baker works a fragrant loaf from bubbling, yeasty starts. Kai is intense, deep, and, most tellingly, tactile. He touches everything. Hugs release the anchors from his soul. If I’d made the connection when he was a baby, I would have cuddled him until he levitated.

Kai turns ten this week. He’s almost as tall as me, and wears one shoe size smaller than I do. Where once he embraced my knees, now his hugs cradle my shoulders. Kai’s thoughtful brown eyes widen as he talks: “You know, mom, I think…” His hands emphasize his words. If there’s a stairwell, he reliably jumps the last steps, his lanky limbs clattering to the ground. Lately, he’s developed a dancing streak.

Kai struggles with his sensitivity, though I insist it is a valuable strength, reminding him of the many ways in which it helps him build relationships with others and showcase his empathy. Our dog adores him for the constant affection he shows her. Kai is the first to offer help. His friends smile the goofiest, sweetest grins when he’s around. His laughter is a fine thing.

There are a handful of things I wish I could do over, knowing now what I wish I knew then. Those early months with Kai top the list. I am so grateful that, with Kai, every day is an improvement from the one before. The trajectory of our relationship arcs upward, marked by a broadened sense of understanding. Seeing him develop as a young man has been worth every tear.

Happy birthday, little owl.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015



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Hot Springs Prophet

IMG_1013For the last few years, friends have invited our family to join them on holiday sojourns in one of the small Idaho towns built around natural hot springs. We’ve joined them eagerly each time. This year, my friends and I met an individual who was working through some difficult issues. We laughed about him later, joking that he’d imbibed more than the two shots of cognac he mentioned, but, for better or worse, he earned the distinction of my first “big personality” of the new year.

Our “conversation” is recorded below. His comments appear in italics; mine in plain text.


Hi. I’m sorry. Am I in your way? I hope you’ll excuse me; I was just praying. Then a raven flew over my head and it was you. Sit down. Tell me about you.

I am wary of non-Native Americans who reference totem animals during introductions, and I just realized why you are the only person in this pool. You’re physically blocking my exit, and it would seem rude for me to run for the opposite exit. I’m congenitally polite. That’s why I’m still here with you.

How old are you? I’m 41, and I hope I don’t look it.

You look like you used to surf. You have pale blue eyes, short brown hair, and an established tan. A fossilized tooth – large as a fist, and veined with gold and diamonds – dangles from your neck. The wind blows steam between us, obscuring your face. In my mind, I am praying that one of my larger male friends catches sight of us and rescues me from you. I curse myself for damsel-mentality.

Do you love your kids? Do you love your husband? How do you feel about your marriage?

Are you high or just an everyday creeper? I am a terrible liar. I keep my answers short and unspecific, because your sabertooth necklace could be a weapon and I don’t want to risk enraging you.

Last week, I divorced from my wife of eighteen years. She was my world. She was my Jesus, until I realized that I was Jesus… I loved my kids… You know the movie FrozenMy wife decided to divorce me after that movie came out.

Why did you just refer to your children in the past tense?

I worked so hard – like 16-, 20- hour days – and I made hundreds of millions. But she stopped seeing Jesus in me. And I stopped seeing Jesus in her.

“Yes, sometimes it is hard to see the best in people, especially the people who are closest to you.” Polite and genuine. Great.

I see Jesus in everybody. In Satanists, in atheists.

I start trembling at the mention of Satanists. I hope you don’t notice. I am beginning to worry that you will drown me while my friends chat away in other pools. 

I met this one lady – she must have been eighty. You know what she told me? She said, ‘Tell a boy in fourth to sixth grade that he is great, and he will love you forever. Tell the same to a girl of the same age, and she’ll hate you.’ It’s the Mars – Venus thing. Men and women are just different. But we all have Jesus within us. I guess I got complacent.

“Complacency blossoms easily.” You nod.

I punched a guy the other day. He was an atheist and he didn’t like it that I saw Jesus in him. So he got in my face and I punched him. Punched a guy in the hot springs.

You are definitely a serial killer.

I’m just trying to do the right thing. I share my message. I have, like, 27 million Facebook followers. I see Jesus in you.

I see Jesus in you, too. Oh look, here’s my friend, Max. I hope that you find the resolution that you seek, but I have to go get my kids out of the pool. See ya!


Later that night, I wrote the Prophet a letter.

Dear Prophet,

I understand you on many basic human levels. You’re going through feelings I can’t imagine or grasp, because I haven’t lived them. You don’t know me from Jesus, but I feel a little like I know you. I guess the most important thing is this: do your best to live through the pain, and trust that the universe holds alternate paths for you. I hope the new year will improve your outlook as you begin to heal.

Best wishes,


My counselor friends tell me that going through a divorce is comparable to mourning a death, so on New Year’s Day, I ripped up the letter and set the pieces on fire. I left the ashes for the universe to reclaim.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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Pleasure Seekers

Once upon a time in a quaint farm town...

Once upon a time in a quaint farm town…

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
– Rudyard Kipling

Once upon a time, in a quaint farm town, there lived a community much like that of any other small town. While the sun crested the high alpine peaks, residents prepared for their days, readying for work of one kind or another, inside or out of the home. Children rode their bicycles to the elementary school. Birds chirped as farmers loaded aging pick-up trucks with hay bales and feed. Cars passed through the town’s only stoplight, heading north to more prosperous cities and south to larger towns: stop, go, stop, go.  And each day, a shadow coursed along in pajama pants, jittering, thrusting her hands, visible one moment and gone just as quickly, as if to convince onlookers she was never really there at all. Except, she was.


I can only speak for the town in which I live, but it’s not a stretch to imagine that addiction addles other communities as well. His face and temperament might vary, but he wears a similar outfit wherever he roams: an overcoat of hole-filled secrecy, shoes worn thin from tireless searching for the next fix. Whispers follow him, though few care to look him directly in the eyes. In my town, his name is Meth. He has an alarming number of friends.


As children, we’re warned not to do drugs. Our parents admonish us, as do schools and billboards. Culturally, however, we do drugs all the time, often in multiples, each one yielding a specific desired result: pain killers, anti-inflammatories, allergy relievers, anti-depressants, contraceptives, cholesterol lowering agents… Drugs are commonplace and abundant. People use them for leisure, for pleasure, to improve quality of life; others take drugs out of necessity, medical or otherwise. Into our bodies they go, dissolving into the bloodstream, workhorses for end goals. The distinction, then, isn’t that we should abstain from drugs, but that we should avoid the drugs with the potential to destroy us.


Problems are easily overlooked when the user has no name, but, in this small town, it was only a matter of time before I would see (and know) my first before-and-after. I encountered her a few weeks ago, hastening along Main Street, eyes bulged, punching the air around her head, cigarette in hand. Did she recognize me? Did she catch my wince before I looked away? Did she register my shock at her haggard appearance? Growing up in Brooklyn accustomed me to unanticipated doses of fright, but it seemed unfathomable that the girl before me was the same girl I remembered from just last year. Today, she is a wiry, crackling, frayed piece of electricity paying a dear price for her pleasure.


One of my friends has a strong background in drug and alcohol counseling. Lacking first-hand experience, I consulted with him to round out the research I’d done online, and what he told me helped me understand meth usage from a neurological perspective. Basically, meth floods the brain with dopamine (a chemical tied to motivation and reward that makes people feel really good) for a much longer duration than we usually experience from doing other activities that make us feel good, like eating good food, having sex, or working out. Its biggest danger, he explained, “is that it makes other activities seem pointless by comparison…. When the animal part of our brains know that with a phone call and a quick injection we can feel incalculable pleasure, it makes putting in the effort for going for a run and feeling a little bit better seem like a much less satisfying option. We tend to take the path of least resistance for the highest gratification.”


I am an outsider to the world of illegal drugs, but addiction is relatable, because it spills into alcohol, tobacco, exercise, food, creative expression… anything, really, that promises the chance of happiness or fulfillment. Social pressures, genetic inheritances, and slick marketing conspire to weaken resolve.  I understand the human appetite for pleasure.


Utah has its highlights and its struggles. As a non-Mormon, I will forever be a minority, a member of the 30% fringe, though I attended college here, live and work here, and, as the only child of my parents’ union and subsequent separation, have enjoyed the state’s natural offerings every summer since I was a baby. Countless observations have shown me that ice cream satiates (and palliates) the appetite of the state’s majority, who abstain from hot tea and coffee, alcohol, and tobacco – and vice in general – as a religious and moral imperative. Ice cream is obviously not a drug, but any child can tell you that its sweet creaminess has its own mood-altering effects.


The state has also been scrutinized for its high use of anti-depressants. Some contend that residents are more likely to seek medical assistance because they are forbidden to imbibe in the substances that others typically use to elevate moods, legally attainable or not. An entry in the Mormonism Research Ministry suggests that the pressure of striving for perfection could potentially lead to higher rates of depression. I think winter and relative isolation work in tandem to foster sadness. Winter days crawl along, prolonged nighttime encrusted in snow. Salt Lake City, with its dense population, experiences a thermal inversion that blots out the sun with a dense layer of smog for days and weeks. My town does not experience the inversion and is, for the most part, blessed by crisp, blue skies, but the days are so very lonely and hollow, making the world feel too small at times. How we cope varies. Pleasure is pleasure, and we seek it in whatever ways we can.


The minority fringe blisses out on caffeine in the form of tea and coffee, as does a large part of the overall global community. According to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, caffeine is a “behavior-modifying chemical” that “stimulates the central nervous system, relieves drowsiness and fatigue, and quickens reaction times.” And yet there are no awareness campaigns or recovery programs for caffeine addicts. Those who quit consume other, easily acquired drugs until the jitters, headaches, and cloudy irritability pass. The Coca Cola website tells me that there are “34, 750 ways to describe” how the popular beverage makes a person feel.  In 2009, the soda’s motto was “Open Happiness.” Who wouldn’t want to drink in happiness if that was all it took?


Once upon a time, in a quaint farm town, there lived a writer who recoiled in the raw face of addiction. Her shock unnerved her. Her mother’s family had lost brothers and uncles to alcoholism. She remembered sneaking outside to smoke in high school and college: those dizzying, intoxicating first drags. She felt the beckoning warmth of a morning cup of tea, black and sweet, radiating against her cupped hands. Even her chosen field of interest condemned her: musings on food and drink, near obsessive in tone, for which she held – and still holds – such reverence. She had peered into the frenzied blue eyes of someone who might under other circumstances be her friend and judged, only to recoil at herself, deeply ashamed by her reaction.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014


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