Monday, November 30, 2009

Solitude

Since leaving school on Wednesday,
I have driven 961 miles,
on three different days,
with various amounts of stopping in the midst.
We crossed five states,
listened to almost an entire book on CD,
and took pictures of fun and exciting sites across the rugged Midwest, including:

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...large Christmas trees travelling at 70mph.

Today, after a morning of strong coffee,
good conversation,
a run in the cold air blowing off Lake Superior,
and several hours in a couple airports,
I was back in the silence of an empty, cold apartment, greeted only by
a stack of mail
and wilted plants,
already somber about the impending three weeks apart.

Until I travel back up North, to rejoin Curtis for Christmas break, I’ll keep busy around here: hanging my own Christmas decorations (minus the gigantic Christmas trees),
mailing gifts to our families in all corners of the country,
and appreciating the benefits of solitude in the midst of a chaotic season.


Friday, November 27, 2009

Brokenness, Thankfulness, and Hope

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There is a student who sits in my class each day who has experienced much more than I hope to ever know. Abuse, neglect, dishonesty, divorce and abandonment start a long laundry list that she had already known by age seven. Double the years and you meet a student that has built walls of protection so thick that she hardly knows how to feel.

Despite the magnitude of emotions and experiences she has only begun to unpack in the conversations we have once in a while, I have hope that someday, somehow, she will see the brokenness redeemed.

That she will love.

That she will trust.

That she will have a faith is someone bigger than herself.

It is so easy to be thankful when the world is bright and cheery and all is well. But when I am surrounded by such brokenness, when I see people whose faces are rubbed in such darkness, there are moments when I wonder—when I fear—that such heartache may not be redeemed.

I am thankful, so thankful, that I have faith in something so much greater than myself.

That all will be redeemed, someday.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Where Are You Going For Thanksgiving?

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Today, at approximately 6pm, I will get into the car with my husband and drive three and a half (straight, flat) hours to Michigan. The sky will get dark but the route will still feel familiar.

We are headed to late nights, laughter, and a house of people neither of us is remotely related to. We will sleep in the basement and wake to the sound of small feet on the wood floor above us. We will eat together and load the children in running joggers and loop through the neighborhoods on routes we’ve long since measured and memorized. I will make the mashed potatoes, Curtis will eat the last of the pecan pie, and all of us will share in leftovers for the weekend.

The Lions will lose, the economy will be discussed, and the problematic nature of the US education system will be dissected. We will play Dutch Blitz and eat popcorn after the children are in bed, laughing and antagonizing each other to our hearts’ content.

It will be wonderful.

The Michigan tradition started my husband’s first year of college. As an Alaskan attending college in Ohio, a trip home for Thanksgiving was not practical, so he decided to “go home” with the first person who asked. This person was a running teammate at the time, but would eventually become a best friend. They would be in each other’s weddings, celebrate each other’s victories, and cry over devastating turns in one another’s families.

But before any of that could take place, Ryan invited my husband home for Thanksgiving.

The next year I would join them. I wasn’t yet dating my husband, but the three of us had already become good friends, journeying the 200 miles from college to his family and back again for brief visits over spring break and Easter, as well as for trips during May when we were stuck on campus for track, but long since done with our classes.

A couple years later Ryan lived in Jamaica for a year to do mission work, and we continued to visit his family without him. They made it clear to us that we did not “need” Ryan in order to spend time with them, and we were grateful.

Eight years later, we (through Ryan) have gained three “nieces” and one “nephew” that await our arrival each holiday. They expect that we will take them on runs through the neighborhood and push them on the swing in the back yard. They beg for us to sleep with them in their rooms, and want us to join them for episodes of Dora and coloring pages at the kitchen table.

Will we always go to Michigan for the holidays? Probably not. We will move and our relationships will be based on phone calls and e-mails and seasonal reminiscing. Someday we will tell our children of our seasonal trip while we look at pictures of grown children on Christmas cards, remembering how much fun we had.

And we will tell them of what a blessing it was to find family so far from home.

*Boating in Michigan this past fourth of July

Monday, November 23, 2009

Why I Love the Postal Service:

Yesterday brought the arrival of a gigantic, heavy box filled with ice packs and dry ice, protecting the arrival of:

Salmon, Halibut, Cod, King Crab and Moose sausage…from home.

I unloaded the frozen parcels into our freezer, filling it until it nearly spilled out…
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…with the exception of one package, which will be thawed out and served up tomorrow.

--

It’s amazing what sentimental value food can hold. Omelets make me think of Saturday mornings with my dad cooking breakfast. Coffee reminds me of my mother. Warm milk reminds me of my sister’s ritual before bed. Fish makes me think of being home.

If I am a few thousand miles away from family, at least I can have a taste of it here.

But for tonight, I will partake in another food I especially enjoy:
frosting
Chocolate frosting (because who doesn’t like frosting?)

Friday, November 20, 2009

(Winter) Whispers At My Door...

It was already fifty degrees when I drove to work this morning, an unseasonably warm temperature for mid (practically late) November in the Midwest.

When I think of November I picture leaves on the ground, snow in the air and a crisp wind that chills your bones as you scurry from place to place. November is the time to break out the thick sweaters and knee-high socks.

Scarves are needed.

Sandals are unthinkable.

Gloves are important.

Yet today I wore a skirt to work--with no nylons or tights, (gasp!) mind you. I didn't need them. All I needed was a light sweater, heels, and the warmth of my classroom space heater as I waited for my room to warm as the morning progressed.

Christmas music is already playing on one station (that I've discovered so far), and for once I'm not even really tempted to listen to it. It doesn't feel quite right, listening to Christmas music in a skirt and bare legs. Without gloves.

They say there will be snow in time for Thanksgiving. They say...

It's time for all of these things, but they aren't here. Everyday I look longingly at the shelf laden with sweaters and think, "Yes, soon will be a perfect day for a sweater...but it's not today" and I choose a skirt or another warm weather option, and try to appreciate such a warm, long autumn.

---

This school year I have been working to appreciate the present. Curtis and I may be moving at the end of this school year, and while the prospect of living closer to family is a welcome one, I am ever aware of what I would leave behind.

People will get married, students will graduate, children will be born, and grow and mature.

And I will miss it all.

And yet, I remember, I miss all those same things as I am away from home. These past eight years away from my family have been a constant exercise in appreciating what I have where I'm at--because without that focus I am left mourning what I am missing in whatever location I am not.

So even as I hear and think of events that may transpire after my departure, I try to choose the appropriate response for the time being: gratitude for the present.

And when winter finally arrives, as it inevitably does, I will appreciate the warmth of my sweaters as I shiver against the bitter cold.

Moose
*Visions of home...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

“Teachers are amazing beautiful creatures”

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I taught a lesson this week about defending opinions with persuasive strategies. I gave the eighth grade class examples of opinions to defend such as “Pizza can be eaten for any meal” and “Eighth graders should be given an extended lunch”. They laughed as I tried to come up with completely serious defenses for my ridiculous opinions, modeling the strategies with good humor.

After the show I put on for them (which is often what I feel like my job entails: crafty entertainment with lessons hidden inside) I set them off to write their own opinions and come up with defenses using the practiced strategies.

As I circulated the class, offering feedback on each student’s progress, I came to one student whose opinion was that “Teacher’s are amazing beautiful creatures.”

I couldn’t help myself; I laughed out loud.

This moment of unabashed laughter cost me the attention of the entire class, who was now hopelessly distracted from opinions and defenses. As I shushed their curious banter and encouraged them to concentrate, I heard the guilty students proclaim, “Well, they are!” defending his (seemingly) brown-nosing comment for the rest of the period.

It made my day.




*Taken in the quiet of August, before the chaos and humor ever began.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Perils Of Overdoing It

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When my husband and I moved into our lovely apartment as newlyweds two years ago we inherited a lot of character and quirks. The second story of a house built nearly 100 years ago, it is far from up to date. In addition its poor retention of heat is its poor tolerance of power—of any kind.

When we use the microwave, we can’t use the toaster oven, or a combination of the coffeepot and the radio. When we’re using the dryer, we can’t use the hair dryer, or a combination of the microwave and anything else. The landlord’s latest introduction of a high tech heater as a way to cut down on the expense of radiator heat has complicated this power issue further, since we have to remember to turn the heater off before running the microwave, dryer or hair dryer (or any combination of anything else).

Are you taking notes? There will be a quiz afterward.

This would not be a problem if we did not live in such a multi-tasking , quick moving society. I don’t always have time to use only the hair dryer or the microwave. Sometimes I really need to microwave my oatmeal while getting ready for work and maintaining the temperature of the house.

But, alas, that is not an option.

When we inevitably forget to turn one thing off before turning something else on, the circuit blows, EVERYTHING shuts off, and we have to call our downstairs neighbor to turn it on. Thankfully, he is ever gracious and patient with us and our need to rush through things, and returns power to us once again.

He does not seem to ever blow the circuit.

--

The other night I fell asleep to the faint smell of burning plastic. I had searched unsuccessfully to find the source, and settled my mind with the notion that something weird had circulated through our space heater.

An hour and a half later I woke to the beeping of our heater and the sharp smell of burning plastic. I was being intoxicated by the fumes of burning something, and our heater (sensing the danger of burning plastic) had already turned itself off.

Since it was late, and I was not in the mood to play detective, I settled for throwing open a window (which inevitably involves a lot more struggle and effort due to the age of everything), climbing back into bed with a headache and mild nausea from the smell.

The next evening when I finally had time to investigate the problem, the source was discovered: the plug. You see, our house only has two-prong outlets. In order to plug anything with three-prongs in, you need a converter. Our converter had apparently had quite enough and decided to melt to the cord.

Lovely.

--

This week as I made my plans for next week's lessons I was shocked to find that I am eight days away from Thanksgiving break.

Eight days!

Since Thanksgiving celebrations lead to the chaos of December, January shows up in the blink of an eye, and then the school year is halfway over.

It is so easy to be sucked up in the chaos of the holidays, or the chaos of my job, or the chaos of all the things I desperately try to commit myself to: relationships, learning, committees, students.

At times I find myself akin to the cord I pulled out of the wall: dead, burnt, far from functioning properly, and (figuratively) smelling things up.

This summer I practiced relaxing and resting in ways I hadn’t in years. I read. I cooked. I sat outside in the sunshine. It was beautiful and cleansing and rejuvenating. I feel so good when I am well-rested and not trying to stretch in so many directions. I am better at serving others as well: my husband, my students, my friends and family. When I am too busy, I don’t do it for others at the expense of myself—they suffer too.

It has taken me a long time to truly understand that reality.

I may keep that melted converter for a while because it’s such a good reminder: when we try to do too much, we break down and stink everything up. Sometimes it's just a blown circuit; other times it's a melted cord. Both are an not only an inconvenience, they are also a warning: Be careful. Tread carefully. You may be doing more harm than good.

In the end it's just not worth it.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The End of Innocence

For those who are keeping track:
Us-4, Mice-0

Sometimes you have to celebrate the small victories.
(Especially when you can no longer live in blissful ignorance.)
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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Some Dreams You Just Have to Let Die...

Sisters
My sisters and I, past our primes as gymnasts.

When I was in the sixth grade the US women’s gymnastic team won gold. Every girl that was remotely close to my age was quite nearly obsessed with this group of seven girls who danced and pranced and balanced and twirled on international television better than any other seven girls from any other country.

And we were taken.

My sisters and I discussed and negotiated the picture spreads from USA Today on a daily basis as we developed our own gymnastics collages. We watched them perform as late as our parents would let us stay up, celebrating with each high point performance, feeling crushed as Kerri Strung hurt her leg one vault shy of finishing her performance, only to be blown away by her tear-jerking, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring finish which solidified the gold.

We had won. We had all won.

For me, no Olympics has ever been quite as climactic, no athlete quite as endearing, no performance worth emulating quite as much. I can still list all seven members of that team (but I will spare you).

Throughout elementary school I secretly hoped there was a chance, just a small chance that I had a shot at being an Olympic gymnast. I dreamed of flipping through the air in the midst of a floor routine, landing a perfect finish off the uneven bars, waving at the flashing cameras with my gold medal.

And then I grew up.

At some point I realized I didn’t have a shot since I hadn’t been practicing twenty hours a week since the age of two. I also realized that I didn’t want to practice twenty hours a week, let alone for a decade. And thus I began to learn that dreams don’t always come true, or rather, dreams aren’t always what you think they are going to be.

As a teacher, I inevitably discover the dreams and hopes and aspirations of my students. Sometimes I ask for this information; sometimes it is offered. Sometimes these aspirations are feasible, and sometimes I wonder how the student has made it this far (14 years? 16? 18?) without a decent reality check. (You want to be what? With your grades?)

When I am faced with these dreamers, I am faced with a decision: perpetuate the dream, or squelch it? If I perpetuate the dream they continue to think that D’s in high school are not a problem in becoming an astronaut or veterinarian or columnist for Seventeen. If I squelch the dream I am "the bad guy". I am condemning the student to a lifetime of low self-esteem, poverty and a lifetime of minimum wage service.

The year before the life-changing gold medal performance I went to a gymnastic practice session with a friend from school. She actually had been training since she was two because her dad was in charge of a gym. During this practice session I was assessed and the coaches gave me a general idea of where I might be placed if I were to begin training with them. At the age of eleven even I could figure out that I was behind the Olympic curve. Gymnasts were champs by fourteen, or too old to make it. I was eleven and already a realist: I knew three years wasn’t quite enough time. Had I been scouted at nine, perhaps it would have been a possibility, but eleven? I was just too late. There would be other Olympic opportunities, I determined.


The line I walk with students who still think they can be gold medal gymnasts (both literally and figuratively) is a delicate one. I don’t want them to give up on the Olympics; I just want them to recognize what it takes to get there.

In the end I don’t really need to proclaim anything to them, as much as the cynic in me wants to. Most students will figure out, soon enough, what it takes to reach their goals. Eventually most of them will meet a dead end and have to refigure what their destination is going to be. For some students it will be painful, for others it will be just another bump in the road.

Some day I hope one of my students blows me away and nails a performance that “couldn’t be done” to bring home the gold. I will gladly eat any predictions I made prematurely, and be glad nothing I said or thought in my quiet (and sometimes loud) cynicism kept them from trying for the seemingly impossible.

And that will be a newspaper clipping worth saving.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Anniversaries, Awards and Things That Sometimes Seem to be Overrated

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Flowers from Curtis, on our second anniversary...

This weekend my church celebrated twenty-five years. There was a walk down memory lane filled with speakers, pictures, videos and puppets from the past and present. Many out of town guests came back to see “where we are now” and to share with the more recent members “where we came from.”

I sat in the back with a couple friends and took in the experience. We sang old hymns and new praise tunes. We watched adults reenact old children messages. We listened to charter members recant the miracles of our past, that have brought us to where we are now. And then we cut and consumed twenty-seven (or so) different kinds of cake before departing for home, only to return twelve hours later for Sunday services.

Last week I attended a banquet celebrating local teachers for their stellar performances. Each district in the county celebrated one teacher for his or her unique and thoughtful teaching career. The teacher I accompanied to the banquet has a classroom that neighbors my own, and we frequent each other’s rooms regularly for a listening ear, pieces of chocolate, and computer print outs (since we share a printer). We make fun of each other to the students, and tease them for liking the other teacher better. New students sometimes get us confused, and once in a while we close our doors with joking scowls to the other because a class has gotten too loud.

She deserved the award. She’s challenging, thoughtful, and will listen to any student, any time—no matter how much grading she has to do.

Last July my husband and I celebrated two years of marriage. I made a nice dinner after he got home from a twelve hour shift delivering babies, and we sat together for a half hour before he secluded himself away to study. Eventually we would find time to take a break, but it would be a month later.

And I was okay with that.

I have always prided myself on being low-maintenance. When we were dating, it wasn’t important to me to keep close track of how long we had been together, and to celebrate various increments as we reached them.

Last month I received a plastic plaque celebrating my finish in a local marathon. The race was miserable, my finish disappointing. It seemed ironic to receive a carefully packaged object celebrating a time that I was not proud of, something that seemed far below my potential or expectations.

I was very proud of myself for finishing; I didn’t need a plaque.

Last year I saw an episode of “The Office” where a character seeks to motivate employees by giving out tokens (Schrute Bucks) for good behavior. Earn enough and trade them in for rewards. The parody successfully critiqued our current culture, where reward and recognition is of the utmost important, while pride in performance—in and of itself—is seemingly not enough.

I am guilty of handing out my own Schrute-Bucks in the classroom, stamping and stickering perfect homework papers, promising the students rewards for gathering a collection. No homework! Trade a bad grade in! Earn a party! Long assignments garner DOUBLE STAMP rewards. And the truth is I have never seen fourteen year olds so attentive to detail.

Unfortunately, it works.

I have sold my soul to the culture of incentive-based-performance.

What does this have to do with a church celebration? Or my anniversary? Or a well-deserved award? (Or a disregarded one?)…in my mind they are not so different. They are all celebrations of occasions: a successful church, a continuing marriage, a thriving professional, a perfect paper.

This string of celebrations over the past few months, some that I embraced and appreciated more than others, caused me to realize that somewhere there is a line between celebrations that are frivolous and selfishly motivated and those that are worthy of months of planning.

Because some milestones truly matter.

Six months of dating? Not really. Thirty-seven perfect answers to questions about present, past and future perfect tense? That’s pushing it. Twenty-five years of building a thriving supportive community? Absolutely.

When it comes down to it, celebrations and awards and milestones are all opportunities for encouragement, for a job well done, and for work that has been done well and should continue. Sometimes the immediacy of everything in the present causes us to lose sight of the entire journey. Sometimes we need to take a minute to appreciate the beauty of what has come already to appreciate the potential for the future.

And that is when these milestones come in handy. May my cynicism of the culture and my disdain for social niceties never keep me from offering true and genuine encouragement.

Friday, November 6, 2009

What does a long week at work look like?

This:
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Is it bad that I mourn the loss of these socks? I remember buying them with a friend I have since lost contact with, on a Thanksgiving weekend years ago. Call me sentimental, but throwing away these socks made me sad. (Don't worry, I still threw them away...)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fourteen Minutes


This weekend I watched in agony as Paula Radcliffe finished fourth in a marathon that, given her past times, she should have easily dominated. It was fourteen minutes slower than her world record, far slower than she is capable. And I knew that those last miles, those last fourteen minutes represented so much: pain, frustration, and agony knowing that things are not turning out the way they should.

I felt for her; I really did. I could feel my tears coming as she crossed the finish line.

Even though I have never done it on national television, I have run many races that have turned out less than, far less than, I expected—marathons included. Inspired first by my mom, second by my husband, and simultaneously by many other running influences, I ran my first marathon (26.2 miles) thirteen months ago. Inspired by my first experience, I ran my second six weeks ago.

I ran my first with not only nervous anticipation of the pain, but also an excitement to find out how fast I could go and how well I would endure. I ran my second with a similar (but more informed) nervousness, and even greater excitement about improving my time from my previous year, confident that I would not only endure, but also excel.

Running a successful marathon requires months of training. While I train year round to stay in shape, in the four months before the big race I ran up to seventy miles a week, in runs up to twenty miles at a time. I carefully monitored how fast I ran during workouts, increased my sleep to encourage recovery and monitored my food to make sure I was taking in enough and good quality calories.

Training for a marathon makes me feel a lot like my pregnant friends. I am always tired, always hungry, often aching and always looking forward with a lot of preparation to one big day where the moment of truth will occur, the pain will be felt, and the results will be seen.

The first marathon went well. I felt great for the first thirteen miles, under control for the next six, and pushed my way through the last seven. I could barely walk afterward, but was euphoric with a sense of accomplishment. I had worked hard. I had endured. I could rest on my laurels and enjoy my aching body with joy. I finished as the seventh woman, in three hours and nine minutes. I was content.

Six weeks ago I started my second marathon and was almost instantly concerned. I felt nauseous within the first mile, and it built through the second mile causing me to break out in a cold sweat. I felt ready to vomit any second. While the intensity of the nausea ebbed and flowed over the course of the next several miles—it never subsided. I dry heaved several times throughout the race, which left me frustrated and uncomfortable and weary.

By mile six I was tired, much more tired than I should have been or ever was on training runs at faster paces. When my husband, who doubled as my Gatorade carrier, asked me how I was feeling, I broke into tears. I was exhausted, and the impending twenty miles had me more than nervous, I was flat out dreading it.

Sure enough the next twenty miles proved to be some of the longest hours of my life. My body settled on four-minute cycles: feel good, feel nauseous, want to quit, talk myself out of quitting, repeat. It was a miserable mental exercise that would have been bad enough without aching legs that were growing more tired by the minute.

In the end, I finished. I finished fourteen minutes slower than last year, twenty minutes slower than I had hoped to.

I was so proud of myself I was practically glowing.

When I crossed the finish line I started crying, not because I hurt (which I did) or because I was exhausted (which I was) or because I was disappointed (which I was), but because I had pushed through and endured a grueling challenging task that despite months of preparation had proved to be miserable.

It still amazes me that with months of preparation the reality turned out so sour, so bitter, so wearing. Everything about the race was wrong given the work I’d put in ahead of time. And, for better for worse, this is also true of life in general. Despite the greatest preparation and toil, things can turn into bitter, trying ordeals that end much differently than plans might have indicated.

Differently than they ever should have.

In the last six weeks I have run outside twice. Once was to let a dog out for a friend that was out of town; the second was to enjoy a beautiful fall day with my husband. Both were for a half hour. Both turned out to be miserable.

Since the marathon, running has turned into a task similar to trying to eat food after vomiting: everything about it is unappealing. I still workout in other ways, sometimes even for an extended period of time, but grinding out time on the pavement is still too vivid of a reminder of a recent, grueling three hour and twenty-three minute run. It’s still too fresh.

I know someday I will enjoy running outside again. It has, after all, been my primary means of relieving stress and enjoying nature for twelve years. It may be next month; it may be more. Regardless of how long it takes me to mentally and emotionally recover, I know I will someday return to working hard at something I love to do, even when things turn for the worse.

I hope I always have this faith to endure troubled times, knowing that all is not lost, trusting that in time everything will be redeemed.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Holidays Can Now Begin...

...the egg nog has been purchased (and enjoyed).

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