Thursday, December 29, 2011

No Time to Spare

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I always think I'm going to have more time when I finish school for the quarter and am rewarded with a break. I will paint, and clean, and organize. I will cook, and bake, and read. I will ski, and write, and accomplish all the tasks I don't have time to fit in when I am teaching.

And then the break begins.

I start with good intentions, and often maintain a fairly productive pace--motivated by the momentum of the finishing semester. Then, I realize how much time I have. Two weeks is plenty of time to paint the kitchen, read four books, and complete the mending that has been stacked by my dresser since...August. Then, I fill my time with tasks not on my list, mainly cooking, meeting Curtis for lunch, playing with my friend's children, and collecting large balloon arrangements downtown. Then, I find that my break is over and the only mending I did was the hem on a pair of pants I needed to actually wear. That sock that I am too cheap to throw away with one small hole in it? Still sitting in the mending pile, needing ten minutes of attention that I can never seem to spare.

I suppose I should be used to this cycle by now, relegating my list to a few key to-do tasks and leaving the rest of my break to the whim of a relaxed schedule.

With the exception of less than 72 hours out on the island to visit Curtis's family, we've been pretty set in town this year. Curtis had to work almost all of the break, and I was content to put off much Christmas shopping, all decorating and wrapping, and plenty of other activities knowing that I could accomplish them "over break".

Turns out that I would have gotten just as much done if we'd just headed out of town for a week...but where's the fun in that?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Break Reflections: (Insert clever title here)

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At times we speak of "coming down" at our house, that point in time after a dramatic event when you are still worked up from completing a challenging task--even though it is over. As a child this seemed to happen most often post-Christmas or birthdays, as a high school student it surely happened at the end of the semesters or after a season ended, in college post-final and post-national competetion let downs were dreaded, and seemed to often be coupled with an inevitable illness.

Despite the less extreme build ups that happen as adults with (semi) normal jobs, those let downs still happen, and Curtis and I do our best to try and plan distractions to lessen the blow. We know (from experience) that after a board exam or a 30-hour shift or a day packed with grading end-of-the-semester projects all we think we want to do is sit on the couch...but often what we really need to do is get out.

Friday night I found myself on a date with one of my best girlfriends: the one I have known since eighth grade, the one who lets me spend the night at her house when Curtis works nights for weeks at a time, the one whose kids excitedly cry "Ash!" whenever I come over. When I moved back to Alaska a year and a half ago I was so sad to leave a supportive community of people behind, but I shouldn't have been surprised to find friendships waiting for me the moment I stepped off the plane, friendships that perhaps had been dormant for a while, but ready to come back to life now that distance was no concern.

She and I went out for a nice dinner Friday night, our prearranged Christmas gift for each other, and talked and laughed and caught up on weeks of events that have been left unshared due to trips out of town, and finishing semesters, and everything else since Thanksgiving. Then, just as the evening seemed to be winding down as we walked the chilly streets downtown a stranger offered us a bouquet of balloons. This is where it becomes apparent that my friend and I are very different people. I took one look at this collection of no less than three dozen red and green balloons and chuckled, prepared to continue our chilly walk to the car. She didn't miss a beat and exclaimed an enthusiastic YES, and began prancing down one of the busiest streets downtown like she had just won the lottery. "This is amazing!" she cried while laughing, attracting the attention of all the Christmas crowds downtown on a Friday night. And I chuckled as I followed behind, wind blowing the massive collection in front and behind us, distracting traffic, making our already fun evening into a memory.

After ten minutes of her pulling and me pushing the massive collection of balloons into her SUV, jostling them around four carseats, a pair of skis and poles that popped at least one balloon on the way home, we managed to fit all but five in the vehicle for the drive back to her house. I drove behind her on roads that were slick, and we trecked several miles across town hovering under forty miles per hour, the speed at which the exposed balloons seemed destined to break free. By the time we had unloaded them at her house, two of four children came downstairs awake to see about this commotion. They were wide eyed with surprise over this massive balloon collection, a Christmas miracle for sure. An hour later when I headed home, I declared to the silence of my vehicle that let-down-day distraction was a success. The conclusion of teaching/coaching/grading/learning for 2011 had been marked with dinner out and one large bouquet of balloons that still hover on the ceilings around my friend's house. The break could not begin.

As my itch for activity wanes as the break progresses, my list of Christmas-items-to-finish also decreases, despite my inner protests against too much Christmas break productivity. Curtis rolled in this afternoon as the snow started to fall outside, bleary eyed after a thirty hour shift, content to sit on the couch and sip cider with me for a few minutes before heading to bed for the afternoon. I should have attacked the kitchen there and then: finished the dishes, sorted the mail, tossed the leftover wrapping scraps from my (solo) wrapping party the night before. I should have addressed Christmas cards or straightened the house. Instead I opted for a mid-day nap, and as Curtis fell asleep instantly I stared out the window and watched the snow fall as I listened to his breathing.

An old children's book rhyme came into my head as I lay there, making me smile as it rolled through my mind, and I made changes to fit my own meaning. "The cleaning and scrubbing can wait till tomorrow, But Curtis won't be, as I've learned to my sorrow. So quiet down cobwebs; Dust go to sleep! I'm being with Curtis and Curtis won't keep." (adapted from Ruth Hulbert Hamilton)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Final Stretch

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The sun rarely makes an appearance these days, each one becoming shorter and shorter in daylight as we creep toward winter solstice. Even as the gains of January and February feel slow, there is comfort in knowing we are making gains with each week, instead of suffering losses. As I walked across a dark parking lot today in what is typically considered afternoon I realized how accustomed I have become to this existence: the glare of florescent lighting on ice, the rhythmic breathing of car engines left on in the cold darkness, the audible gasp I uttered when I saw sunshine out of a fellow teacher's window--mine, unfortunately, faces a brick wall.

This past weekend I made a brief trip out to rural Alaska to visit a friend completing the same rotation Curtis did this past summer. While some questioned why I would ever want to travel "out there", the nostalgia of a trip that provided so much rest and relaxation this summer made it an opportunity I sought out and scheduled, rather than one I tried to get out of. The weekend trip was extended when all flights were cancelled Sunday evening, courtesy of the latest blizzard/wind storm. While my sister, and also my pickup at the airport, questioned me making it back before the flight was even delayed, I realized I wasn't in any hurry to return. I had read a whole book, made s'mores in front of a log-burning stove, watched Hallmark Christmas movies, napped, cooked, and ran. And yet I felt like I had lazed the day away in passive relaxation, uncommitted to any task.

When I finally made it out around 11am on Monday morning, I had scheduled a substitue, written lesson plans, and found out school was cancelled due to terrible road conditions. As the plane broke the clouds I was surprised to find myself on the South side of the plane, just in time to catch the sunrise. At that moment I couldn't remember the last time I saw the sun. It had been cloudy all weekend--the only days I even have the opportunity to see it.

I feel like I am on the final stretch for a lot of things right now: one day of teaching and one day of grading, two days of Curtis on this busy rotation, one week until we start gaining sunlight. And finally I feel close enough: to breathe easy, knowing it will be over and finished, confident that even as the daylight disappears, it will return eventually.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Rain Remians

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The temperature has dipped to a more frigid range, and I noticed myself wishing for gloves as I ventured out in the afternoon. After a month of below zero temperatures, one week in the 40's sent me running for cover--against my "toughness" instincts. Despite the neutral temperatures, the consequences of our week-of-warm left consequences that remind me of the brief foray. Ruts indented in slush are now frozen over, leaving grooves around corners and through parking lots. Rocks spray up on the windshield as cars whip down the highway, previously laid to deal with treacherous ice, now causing their own mischief with cracks in the windshields and dents in the doors. And of course the trails won't be the same until we get a generous dump of fresh snow to cover the tracks of humans and dogs, who thought slushy ski trails wouldn't notice a pedestrian's visit.

The rain remains, you see.

Tis the season for rash behavior, it seems to me. Between the massive amounts of shopping and celebration the month brings, is a generous amount of misbehavior. Students, prematurely celebrating the freedom of Christmas break or actively dreading it, seem to double and triple their typical incidents-- leaving the office full and my soul weary. Despite the brevity of the mistakes, the consequences last beyond the hour or the day, sometimes even beyond the week.

There are times when I feel like life is a series of events--some lasting longer than I want, others lasting not long enough. To find that magical moment when the time matches the experience is truly a gift; it happens so rarely it is often nearly missed. Thus I seek to create or note those moments for myself: embracing another week of school, even as the students are restless; noting the relationships I have much time to cultivate in light of Curtis's perpetual absence; soaking up the chill in the air even as I shiver.

Winter, you are beautiful: snow, rain, darkness and all.

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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Too Much Excitement, or Where Did Winter Run Off To?

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This evening as I walked to my front door, I couldn't help but notice the balmy breeze. My running shoes, typically coated with snow that never melts from run to run, were bare and wet. It may be December 4, but someone forgot to tell the weather. While November 1 saw us hit with a snowstorm, and daily snow falls an unimaginable number of days following, the weather this week has called for weather in the mid-30's. This brought two thoughts:
1) Might as well wear a dress; after all, with all the sub-zero temperatures I haven't gone without knee high wool socks and layered sweaters for weeks.
2) Oh no.

As a skier, I have been thrilled with our weather this winter (or fall, if you go by traditional dates to determine seasons, and not types of precipitation). The snow layered for days early on, and by mid-November we had a generous base that any local would praise as impressive. Given that there have been years that the local ski trails were barely groomed in January, a quick transition from run/bike season to ski season is something to celebrate. Sure, Curtis didn't love his daily walk/bike to work when the snow plows daily covered the sidewalks with impassible accumlation, but even he loves a nicely groomed trails. In fact, he has been anxiously awaiting this weekend when his schedule would allow us to hit the trails for a nice, long outing unencumbered with a schedule.

And then the weather report came out.

"Freezing rain" it said, and then "37". Friday's school let out with all afternoon activities canceled. Curtis and I headed out of town for the weekend, and though a couple hours north turned the snow into rain, it didn't last. By Saturday night it was raining there as well, and by the time we left Sunday the trees--formerly heavy with snow--were bare and dripping. Skiing barely happened despite all our preparation, and the sixty-five degree swing from two weeks ago left us questioning which was worse: -25? or 40?

The forecast this week calls for the temperatures back in the twenties, with maybe a little snow to top off the slush and ice that now cover every trail in town. And while the last two weeks of school always hold their fair share of excitement with the holidays and an impending two week break, I'm hoping the weather gets to be a little more predictable.

I can only handle so much excitement.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Tease

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Just a few days later, Thanksgiving feels like a distant memory. The extended weekend was full of visits with family, basketball games, Christmas shopping and the occasional quiet, slow-moving hour. Curtis was supposed to work through the weekend, but got off early Thanksgiving morning, which was quickly dubbed "a Thanksgiving miracle".

The break has been referred to by many of my colleagues as a tease, and I am inclined to agree. While I did manage to catch up on grading, clean the house a bit, and spend more time than usual sleeping and working out, I reached the end of the weekend ready--at last--to settle in for a break, not ready to get back to my labors.

I suppose, in the spirit of the season, this puts me in line with an attitude of advent. I seem to be always aware of the next opportunity for peace and rest, and in this life it is surely fleeting. And so we press forward, into the weeks of chaos that lead to a moment's quiet, trying to appreciate the moments of peace and joy that can be gleaned from routine struggles in everyday life.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Winter Activity: Hiding Away

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Essence of fall wrapped in winter…

On Friday night Curtis and I skipped town, cramming in all our chores and errands as the evening wore on, finally heading down the highway when it was nearly nine. I put together a playlist with everything from Coldplay to Sinatra, and Curtis watched the road while I fed him bites of soft serve ice cream—courtesy of Costco’s food court, our last stop for supplies before hitting the road.

The temperature dropped steadily as we made our way to the interior, starting at -4 in town and reaching a low of -19 by the time we hit my parent’s cabin. Curtis unloaded the car while I ran around the inside adjusting the thermostats, turning on the hot water heater, bringing the house to life. After a quick look around we settled into bed, falling asleep sometime after eleven—a pretty late night by our standards.

Thanks to our typical schedules we were both awake by eight, just in time to see the first signs of light across the lake. Southern exposure is highly sought after in this state, where winter light is provided by brief visits from the sun, rising and falling in a narrow arch on the South end of the sky. With more than two feet of snow on the deck we bundled up after breakfast to find the temperature hovering at -25. As our eyelashes and face-masks became covered with crystals, morning broke before our very eyes, with the brilliant sun almost causing us to forget about the frigid cold.

As we headed inside we started the car, knowing that a night and morning that cold had clearly chilled the battery to the core. It barely turned over, sputtering a few plumes of dark exhaust before roaring with force. Turns out our vehicle may need an engine block after all—that convenient means of plugging the car in for those very cold nights, an amenity not included on cars purchased in Ohio.

Later my family arrived in waves, the parents, the siblings, my sister and her beau visiting from out-of-state, and together we cooked and laughed and played games long after the sunset—which was around 4:30. The next day thin clouds hovered, just enough to take the edge off the cold, though still below zero. We gathered shovels and made sledding routes, employing an old sled to transport us back to our childhood—where hours on a hill covered with snow and sunshine were all that was needed for entertainment.

By the time we made it home there was laundry and preparation for the week ahead. We put together a pot of soup and commented on how exhausted we were—perhaps a few hours hiking up and down a hill is more work than it felt at the time? I suppose our muscles will confess all truth tomorrow, when we return to our lives as professionals with responsibilities and schedules. Until then we make our plans for a return to this winter wonderland as soon as possible, to the place where clocks and thermometers can be ignored, and nothing is on the schedule.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Stuck Inside


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Today, I am thinking of this...

Right now the thermometer reads -3, and that is without windchill. Given that the temperature has dropped six degrees in the last hour, I would say it's going to be a cold night. Either that, or the sunset (at 4:30pm) had a delayed effect.

Warm beaches, poolside reading and evening hot tubs are sounding really good right now, and spring break eight months ago feels like a memory from long ago.

It's getting to be that time of year: when the holidays are close but the break feels so far away.

Restless? You could say that. Spirit week at school seemed to breed a mischevious creativity amongst the students, and staying on task was more difficult than ever. Perhaps these hick-ups in the schedule are necessary in recognizing the value of "normal", but they also leave me exhausted in the evening, struggling to work on the necessary research for a paper on high-level-writing.

High level writing? How about just focus in general?

Yes, the beach is sounding very good right now, that or temperatures that don't make being outside miserable. Thick jackets and mittens are a necessity right now for a fifty foot walk to my vehicle...I can't even imagine voluntary, sustained exposure.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Winter Activity: Monday Matinee

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Movie-lovin', photography shootin', this sister reminds me not to take my schedule too seriously...photo taken during our sister trip to NYC a couple summers ago, which she had a large part in pushing inspiring us to do...

Today my sister and I ventured to round two of what has become known as our "Monday Matinee". A local small-touristy-theater decided that to boost winter business they would present a series of 80'sish films for the viewing pleasure of all who wouldn't mind seeing a young John Cusack wearing high tops and oversized trench coats. Last week we circled a few blocks too many downtown in seeking out our destination; this week we crossed the snowy streets with purpose, a careful eye toward sliding vehicles lest we miss our showing. Greeted with a selection of canned soda and gourmet popcorn, we have ventured into the miniature theater both times to find it completely empty.

Just our luck--we are the only ones that see this opportunity for the lovely outing that it is.

We laughed loudly at the subtle humor and commented on hair-dos and outfits to our hearts delight, spoiling our dinner with salt and vinegar popcorn and cherry coke. When the credits rolled, we cleaned up our empty bags and found ourselves in rush-hour downtown traffic. Never fear, we had an ipod full of a variety of music, and though the ten minute commute took us twenty-five, I hardly cared--it was hangout time at its best.

It's true: I had a backpack full of gear and skis in my car when she called me at school this afternoon asking for accompaniment to the flick. The sun was shining, the trails were calling my name, and in that moment I had to decide: sunny ski in isolation? or 80's hair on the large screen with top-notch bonding and treats?

I'd be lying if I said I wavered for a moment, but in the end, I have no doubt the right choice was made.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Quiet Accumulation

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Hanging wipers, lifted off the windshields in the midst of the storm to make clean off easier...

Yesterday I drove to work in a mild snowstorm. Several inches accumulated on the roads into the morning, and that was on top of the several inches that had fallen the day before. The roads were a bit more treacherous than normal, but thankfully my commute is against the grain of traffic, and when you have three lanes to yourself, it is not quite as scary to have less-than-ideal visibility.

After all, the snow cover I was craving had arrived.

On Sunday morning I woke with time to spare, thanks to daylight savings. Anxious to fit several tasks in before church, I scheduled my morning carefully: work for my online class, breakfast, further work, run, shower, tidy the house, head out. By the time 8:45 rolled around, I was ready for a break from my research and writing, but one look outside surprised me: it had snowed--a lot. Several inches had accumulated while I slept, and what previously looked like a mild case of winter was now progressing very nicely. I debated whether I was still up for the challenge, and decided that even a small run would be better than none--especially since I had already set aside the time for it.

Curtis and I live near a busy intersection, not far off of one of the major roads in town. Thus, it came as a shock to exit the neighborhood to find quiet--the fresh blanket of snow absorbing what little sound was being made by the sparse Sunday morning travellers. I headed around the corner to discover that there was no sidewalk trail to be found this quiet morning, just inches of untouched powder, waiting for someone to blaze a trail on what is typically a well-travelled route. With piano music quietly echoing in my ears, I plowed through: knees rising a bit higher than usual, ankles eventually aching from the unsteadiness of every step, breath heavy with the extra resistance every step offered. It was quiet, and challenging, and perfect.

Forty minutes later I found myself finishing my run ten minutes behind schedule. Despite the nagging notion that breaking trail would cause the "short" loop to be a bit longer, I couldn't bring myself to cut the run off. Some other task would have to wait until later, because this was an enchanting moment that only comes around once or twice a year. As the lavender sky brightened with daylight and the snow clouds melted further away, the neighborhood came to life as well--snow-blowers spitting snow off driveways and onto long ago lawns, wheels spinning as vehicles tried to negotiate inches of loose powder, vehicles sputtering down the road after an extra hour of sleep. By the time I made it home, the last stretch of sidewalk was already plowed and life was back to normal.

Later that afternoon, Curtis texted me from work to let me know that my run through the snow had officially made me his hero. Granted I felt like that was generous, but I was pretty proud of myself for actually getting out the door when I knew the run would be challenging. There are days when I look at the conditions and never bother to get out my running shoes.

Then there are days like today, when I take my mom's dog and venture out in temperatures that are heading down toward single digits, content to watch the clear sky glow as the sun sets, the pitter-patter of the dogs feet the perfect accompaniment to the sound of my rhythmic breathing.

The weather report calls for more snow this week, and if I have my way I'll be out on my skis some time this weekend. But until the next quiet, snowy adventure comes around, I'll let my still-sore muscles remind me of the time a busy thoroughfare turned into a quiet, snow wilderness, conscious of the powerful force that nature always is, even though I don't always notice.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Silent Night

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I went out running in a brisk wind today.
Brisk, mid teens in temperature,
not frigid like it will be come January.
After Sunday's brush with snow,
winter has continued to move in.

Halloween's costumed children had to prance around in a blowing snow storm Monday night,
with visibility that I wouldn't choose to drive in,
let alone voluntarily walk around in for an hour or two.

While the trick-or-treaters were scarce in our oh-so-boring condo complex,
they were multiplying in my friend's neighborhood,
where I ventured for the haunted evening.
I stayed at her house to hand out candy while she ventured out with her preschoolers,
perhaps more eager to fight through snow drifts than the children
in their costume covered snowsuits
let on.

And I was happy to let her go,
wrapped with a Moby wrap bundled around her two month old,
grading papers in my free moments,
watching the sugar highs and subsequent crashes as the evening wore on.

Tonight I spent my few free moments grocery shopping,
cleaning out the refrigerator,
folding dry laundry from yesterday afternoon,
fixing food to take to school for lunch,
replacing the battery in a smoke detector,
changing light bulbs in the bathroom,
in the flashing light Curtis affixes to the back of his bike.

And in these simple moments, I feel satisfied.

Once in a while my life hits a rhythm where the early morning alarm is not a burden,
where quiet reading before starting the day is a solace,
where conflicts with students are met with patience,
and the end of the day comes with a quiet sigh,
content to do it again in the morning.

I do not know if tomorrow will feel the same,
but for now my world is at peace,
a place that felt a million miles away not so many days ago.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Breaking Point

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Latest autumn addition: Mulling Spices...we may or may not be on our third gallon of cider.

Today, it snowed.

I feel like I have peeked out of the blinds in my room every morning for weeks, looking for a dusting of winter. Instead I have been greeted with rain. My first whiff of air in the morning has smelled like spring instead of winter, the darkening skies not matching the other sensations.

But today, it all felt right.

Curtis was home for a quiet weekend for the first time in what felt like forever. His job, great training that it is, has felt consuming for six weeks. Throughout medical school and residency I have felt that realistic expectations have kept me balanced while his schedule is out of control. If I know I won’t see him for days, if I know he’ll be so exhausted he can’t think clearly, if I know he’ll sleep through all the hours he’s home—I’m okay.

Unfortunately, while that method seems to work for months and months of the year, inevitably I hit a point where it doesn’t matter that I know what to expect, I am still very much not okay with the situation. And at that point I worry about his health due to his ridiculous schedule; I get anxious whenever we’re together because it’s only a matter of hours before he leaves. I sleep poorly; I am impatient with my students. And all the while I wonder if I will ever go back to “normal”—if we will ever have a relationship that will be classified as such.

Then, just as suddenly, the streak ends. He’s home for a weekend, and we both sleep soundly—for hours and hours and hours.

Today, the snow felt symbolic. The odd weeks of forty-degree rain equaled out with an overdue, oh-so-seasonal snow, covering the decomposing leaves that have lain dead on the ground for almost a month. It was time.

I was ready.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Estuary Experience: Teaching Outside the Box

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Today:
Shovels, wheelbarrows, hoes, rakes
Broken down wood palates, old newspapers, a mature bull moose sporting an impressive rack
Tights under my jeans, a down coat, a knit hat, boots, fleece mittens

Looking at our crew, you'd never know it was mid-October--and not mid-January.

The nip in the air has been increasing all week, with Monday's morning temperature in the low thirties, and today's dipping ten degrees lower. It was easy to see our breath as we gathered rotted wood and rusted barbed wire in an attempt to clean up city-owned property: an old homestead turned estuary.

Some of the teachers I work with discovered this service-learning opportunity a couple years ago and have taken students to this site to help with every phase of the project, from dismantling the original homestead and make-shift shacks to gathering up debris and trash from the surrounding area. The students were shuttled through different activities, from identifying local critters to observing and discussing the diverse bird population in the estuary, but many enjoyed the manual labor most. After all, how often do most teenagers get to dismantle rotting, wooden structures with brute force? How often do they get to destroy anything without getting in trouble?

Though the chill was enough to numb my fingers and toes by noon, by the end of the afternoon I could feel my face glowing from the sunshine. There is something satisfying about working alongside the students in something other than constructing stories. There is gratification in seeing a clean field where there was previously a generous spread of debris.

When we returned to school, we spread one of many treasures we found in the debris out on my classroom tables: newspapers from 1981. They marveled at the advertisements and the haircuts, and commented about the style of the televisions. They were in awe of the housing prices, which is perhaps what has changed most in the last thirty years, and noted the businesses with which they were still familiar. It is crazy to think that thirty years ago someone lived in a house on that abandoned field, on a bluff overlooking the ocean when now there is nothing now but ruins. Up in Alaska we have so few "old" structures, so little preserved, tangible history that experiencing old buried cow bones and newspapers mysteriously wrapped in plastic feels sort of like an archaeological dig.

Tomorrow we return to the norm: books, papers, pencils, bells. I hope in the return is a new sense of energy that can only come from running through fields of tall grass, working together in projects where I am no more skilled than they are. Yes, in the classroom I call the shots, but they have as much to contribute as I do. And hopefully today reminded them of that fact.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Content with Company

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Last week was spent in catch up mode, the product of many weeks of days packed to the brim. I shopped for groceries and cooked meals from scratch. I made appointments for health check ups, oil changes, and tire changes. I hung a curtain rod I purchased two months ago. I slept. I returned items to stores from purchases made this summer--barely making it under the ninety day limit. I graded stacks of papers, desperate to finish them for this week--the last of the quarter.

By the time the weekend rolled around I felt rejuvenated, and the sunny clear skies seemed bright as well.

In sharp contrast to my recovery week was Curtis's, where he was slammed from Wednesday on. On Friday he awoke from a few hours of sleep after unexpectedly spending a second night at the hospital in a row. He came out to the kitchen to find a myriad of food items: kale and mango salad, macaroni with creamy squash sauce, pumpkin gingerbread. After the cooking hiatus that has come from my coaching, he probably thought he was still sleeping. We feasted and played card games: me, happy to have him home and awake; him, making corny jokes, and laughing at them in his sleep-deprived state. He was asleep by 9pm on this Friday night, and I lay in bed awake--rested from my generous amounts of sleep, content with my productivity, happy to have a partner, if only for a few hours.

There are many sides of contentedness, I am discovering as my life shifts from a packed schedule to a more leisurely pace. Friday's healthy, homemade feast with Curtis left me just as content as Thursday's date in the hospital cafeteria, and Wednesday's dinner at home with a friend I hadn't seen in weeks. The commonality is not the busyness that I sometimes mistake as fulfilling, but rather the people I am busy with--at work, at home, with friends, with family.

Yesterday, Curtis was unexpectedly home by four in the afternoon, and we headed out into the sunny, cool afternoon to bike for a while. By the time we were finished my legs were weary and my toes were frozen, but the unexpected time together was a gift. Cracking through frozen puddles, slipping around corners on the generous blanket of leaves, weaving around other wanderers out with dogs and children and spouses was all I wanted to do yesterday afternoon. Having Curtis to do it with? Even better.

Monday, October 3, 2011

That Which is Measurable

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I woke tired this morning, and hung on to the fatigue as the day progressed. Nothing could seem to lift me from this funk: not sunshine through the windows, not a canceled meeting at lunch, not candy from the bowl in the counseling office. "I need energy and optimism," I confessed to a colleague of mine as I picked through the wrapped treats. She, who is much older and wiser than myself, agreed that today seemed to be made of such sentiments.

Unfortunately, one fun size Almond Joy and one mini-vanilla-Tootsie-Roll were not the solution.

Returning my desk to get to work during my prep period I was greeted with an online report card, feedback on my first week's work for an online class. This class was the thief of many hours of what could have been free time on Sunday, which I spent reflecting on writing curriculum and personal writing habits rather than idling away time hanging out with Curtis, watching Hulu, or baking cookies. While the three essays and numerous feedback comments led to a reflective afternoon and evening, they left me drained of all creative energy come morning, and bitter that the time had been spent while Curtis was home.

And then I opened the email. Do you remember that moment when you no longer received tangible, measurable feedback? Perhaps it was after high school, maybe college or even graduate school. As much as I did not miss the finals, the schedule, or the endless mountains of reading upon graduation, I did miss the consistent tangible measures of how I was doing. Letters, every few months, would be posted to match my progress, and I could assure myself that my work was worthwhile, no matter how insecure I felt in my developing skills.

Then, I became a teacher. Sure, I have observations with administrators and the occasional pat-on-the-back email from an appreciative parent. But I also have rants from other parents frustrated about a teaching unit or method, some students failing for any number of reasons, and a general attitude of apathy from other students that I can't figure out how to combat. At the end of the day I can give myself a grade for how I feel I performed, but it doesn't seem to hold as much weight as the one that was issued on perforated card stock the week after each semester ended--nor is it as unbiased.

It turns out that a good old fashioned report card was what I needed today, a little positive feedback that tells me "Great job! You excel at writing essays about yourself, reading pages of a textbook, and incorporating that information into your classroom model. You can be critical as well as inquisitive about writing instruction, and you have great voice."And then I felt okay about afternoon classes that were boring and distracted, about impatience with the girl that tried to blame me for her missing assignment, about the fact that I'm never going to finish my units in time for the end of the quarter. For a moment, measurable feedback from an outside source trumped the self-critical-and-sometimes-reflective attitude that forces me to proclaim each day as a success or failure.

Today I declare success: We moved forward even though I was tired; I forced students to pay attention even though they wanted to sleep. Tomorrow is another day, hopefully filled with energy and optimism, hopefully declared success as well--even though I'll have to wait until next week for more tangible feedback.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Week Seven, or Elusive Rhythm

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Sometimes I get to the end of the school day only to discover that I never changed the date on the board. The worst is when I realized that the date inked onto the surface is not only not today, but it is not yesterday either. That is when I know I've been drowning in chaos, pure and simple, with students hovering around me all day, asking questions--good and bad, not paying attention, or only paying enough attention to note my personal mistakes.

"Congratulations, overly attentive student, you have reminded all of us that I, indeed, am human. No, it is not September 26 any longer. Yes, I know that was Monday. Yes, I know that it is now Thursday. No, I don't need you to change it for me."

And then I try to move on, acting as if the calendar error does not drive me crazy, calculating subconsciously how many weekends I have between now and the end of the quarter, calculating simultaneously how many of those weekends Curtis is working, leaving me free to bury myself in amateur writing samples with varying investments of time and effort.

Week seven has proved to be the magical number the year, the week that grants me a rhythm to ride out the curriculum. I'm not sure if it takes me that long to get to know my students, or it the foundational teaching of those first several weeks feels fragmented, but whatever the reason is, week seven feels a bit more predictable, a bit more relaxed. And I guess that's why, after a Monday and Tuesday that felt very put-together, Wednesday and Thursday feel so undeniably off. Was it the almost-fight that set some students on edge? Is it the impending boredom that comes as I become less and less original? Perhaps the pressure of the quickening end of the grading period?

Whatever the reason, I would like to eradicate it as soon as possible. I would like my dates to be in order, my grading completed, and my students at peace.

And as soon as I discover the formula to take care of these things, the peaceful rhythm that started week seven can return and make itself at home. There is, after all, only so much chaos I can take in a week--I am still human, which they so often remind me.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Disappearing

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The sunlight seems to be disappearing these days faster than I can capture and appreciate it. I stare longingly at the rays through my classroom windows, begrudgingly tilting blinds to keep the glares out of my students eyes, and race from the building out onto trails after the bell has released me—or was it my students?—for the day.

There are times for staying and working for hours after the students have long since boarded the buses—September sun seems to veto the mere thought of it.

We broke past fifty degrees again this afternoon, seemingly miraculous when some late September days have found us staring at fresh flakes, and even as I heated in my long-sleeved shirt I welcomed the natural warmth. Sure, I can find heat under a blanket or near a fire, but it doesn’t match the feel of sun on bare legs and pale faces; I doubt it ever will.

While nature heads toward hibernation, I sense the same with Curtis. A friendly schedule this summer has seemingly come to an end, with the current schedule taped to the fridge with silent earnestness: “schedule social outings of your own, or become a hermit” it seems to cry.

Oddly enough, it is the hermitage of this summer I was craving this morning as I drove to school: a week in a small Alaskan village. The trip I was warned about turned out to be the vacation we never expected, complete with long walks on the tundra, lazy afternoons to bake bread, and endless rounds of the only game we found in the place—backgammon. I miss the simplicity even as I remember struggling to embrace it.

In moments such as this I feel akin to my students, people struggling against boundaries even as they need them. I fill my schedule, often to the brim, unable to either say “no” or willingly embrace solitude. Yet I find myself craving it, in the quiet of morning mountain sunrises, in the chaos of a hallway packed with teenagers, in the evening moments I gather my belongings for one more day of work before shuffling under the covers. That is when I remember that a reluctant two weeks of rubber boots and a raincoat in a isolated village became the monumental event of the summer, the moment I want to go back and reclaim.

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll ask my students if I can kick myself into the hall to work for a while, away from the chaos of the classroom, and I will leave them in charge. Perhaps they’ll walk away with the same revelation—you don’t always have what you want, but perhaps it is what you need.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Tipping Point

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My life has seemed to teeter on the brink of options as of late, in many areas of my life. At home, we are currently in negotiations about when the heater gets turned on. Our original goal was October, but with the latest dip in temperatures, where they barely break fifty, I’m not sure I’m going to make it.

Current spread: When the indoor temperature fails to break 60, the heater is coming on—whether or not the calendar page has turned.

Curtis, while holding strong on the goal of October for the furnace, has been on the conservative side in a sensitive issue in our relationship, my foot. Having both struggled with our fair share of injuries in high school, college and beyond, we know the reality of most distance running injuries: if you don’t give it a break, it will get worse—not better. This is an exercise of patience and self-discipline when I am coaching daily—regardless of what my foot feels like—and would like to get a workout in in the process. Whether at school or home my icing ritual has begun to feel normal, and walking (rather than running) around meets is beginning to feel a bit less foreign.

Current spread: Ten days off with one workout in the middle leaves me feeling quite a bit better than I was last week. With twelve days left in the season, it’s anyone’s guess if I’ll be able to withstand any sustained running (without carrying an ice pack around with me for the rest of the evening) before the season is over.

While running free from injury has been a goal since long before we moved back to Alaska, there were other goals that have since changed. When we lived in Ohio, we were accruing debt twice as fast as I pulled in a paycheck. While breaking even wasn’t an option, living off our means was always our goal—and it wasn’t an easy one.

Now that Curtis isn’t in school, our grocery shopping doesn’t have to be quite as creative, but I have to admit I often miss it. Perhaps my favorite low-priced-great-buy grocery plan was the one I executed every November 1. The day after Halloween our local grocery store would mark all pumpkins down to 99 cents—for the whole thing. I would go after school, pick one large one out, and bring it home to hollow out, steam, and puree. Measured bags of pumpkins would be preserved in the freezer and pulled out for the rest of the year, reminding me of my savvy shopping, and giving us a little taste of autumn year round.

Autumn comes early in this place, leaves turning before we hit September, snow already making an appearance on the mountains. The constant nip in the air plagues me as I stand idly at practice, as I bury my foot in ice water, as I bundle up in our chilly condo, as I crave pumpkin from my freezer in Ohio—and my current ice box is bare.

Current spread: Current grocery shopping takes place at frantic intervals when we have nothing left to eat—often late at night and without the deals easily found in the Midwest. We still choose to go without plenty of items, but the flexibility of our budget lends itself to a different challenge--perhaps even more difficult than the first: spending and saving wisely and carefully, because we have the funds to do so.

Life seems so steady at times and so uncertain at others. Often changes take place with no warning, and no choice. Perhaps that is why this current interval is so intriguing: I am watching the shifts as they play out, often by daily choices and consequences. And that is a luxury I am willing to embrace.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

They're Back

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The moths, that is. We found them perched on our doorstep when we moved in late September last year, and it turns out that they'd been there for a while. Along with the September moths, the smell in the air has shifted from fresh, clean summer to deteriorating, decomposing fall. This smell drives me back in time, to cross country races and long walks flanked by bright leaves that shower you when the wind blows.

Yes, that is the season we are in.

In the Midwest this season starts late and lasts long, here I feel lucky to squeeze two weeks out of the colored branches. But whether we end up with an Indian summer like last year or bare branches flecked with snow before October, I am satisfied to proclaim--I have experienced it. Fall has come: smell, colors, moths and all. Daylight is rapidly disappearing, which I measure most closely by the state of the sunrise during my commute. Is the sky dark? Dusky? Are the mountains glowing with a silhouette? The day I dread is the first one where sunrise is so far gone, I cannot distinguish the mountains from the sky. That is when winter truly begins for me.

Perhaps I should dig out my wax and skis so that an early snow is met with celebration rather than disdain? Maybe next week...

Monday, September 12, 2011

Give and Take

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The past week has flown by, complete with many moments that I wished to sit down and record on paper but very few moments to actually do so. The exhaustion of Labor Day weekend seemed to carry beyond the generous amounts of sleep scheduled throughout the week, leaving me awake and annoyed in the early morning hours when I felt I was clearly tired enough to keep sleeping, but couldn't manage to do so.

That theme seemed to carry throughout the week, with aspirations of outdoor activity being cut short by a gnawing foot injury from an unfortunate rock that I landed on incorrectly, and with aspirations of leisurely reading being replaced with the consumption of student writing--some more entertaining than others.

The swift, drastic change from the freedom and relaxation of summer to the densely packed schedule of fall seemed to be weighing on me greatly this week, with my emotions torn between appreciation and gratitude for all the productive ways I get to work, and exhaustion from a schedule that is packed to the brim, with overflowing tasks getting neglected in the midst. Multitasking only goes so far, which was magnified as I tried to grade student papers while submerging my aching foot in a bowl of ice water.

Today the load seems to be a bit lighter: grading almost finished for mid-quarter report cards, stories from this round of writing complete with rubrics to be returned to students, and time this evening to catch up on tasks I thought I would easily finish this weekend. If it's not grading, it's laundry. If it's not a missed deadline, it's an empty refrigerator. If it's not a bruised foot, it's a strained quad. I suppose the gift of a full schedule is the curse of give and take, and as much as I loved the freedom of the summer, a hearty laugh from a well-written student story is pretty satisfying as well.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Rituals

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There is, perhaps, no greater time to practice rituals than when two people commit their lives together. Over time these practices accumulate and pass hands, sometimes with those practicing them not even aware of where they came from.

This past weekend I immersed myself in all things wedding, complete with shower, rehearsal, actual event, and all sorts of meals in between. It was a small family affair, with fewer than fifty people in attendance at the wedding—most of whom attended every event of the weekend. By the end of the four day event I knew the bride’s family and friends well enough to converse with them freely, associate appropriate spouses, children and cousins with the appropriate relatives and names, and find my way to their respective houses sprinkled around the small town.

Between the guessing games at the shower that required the donning and removal of plastic flower leis, to the rose petals that lined the aisle and were sprinkled by small girls wearing garlands on their heads, to the color coordinated tuxedos, small boxes of candies and labeled playing cards left on the tables for guests to take away with them as favors—these are images seen as conventional to the modern wedding guest, yet are odd random practices if you actually stop and think about it.

My new sister-in-law has been to more than her fair share of weddings, and has patiently waited for her turn to plan a monumental day. She was far from ridiculous about the details of the wedding, and when items couldn’t be carried out as planned it did not really both her. Yet, the reality remained that this wedding day was one that she had been looking forward to for a long time—not just for the event, but for the future it symbolized.

As we sat in church the morning of the wedding and stood in line for communion, I was struck by the presence of rituals in so much of life. We practice them in church, in the classroom, even in the day-to-day existence in our families. Rituals offer a structure for a symbolic event that while represented by a single evening on a single day, reverberates beyond that moment and comes into existence over time. A wedding may take place on a Sunday evening under blue skies, but a marriage—as most married couples will attest—is built over time from the fruit of shared experiences, good and bad. Just as the bread and wine do not create a spiritual reality, it creates an event to reflect on, a tangible reality to represent a truly immeasurable occurrence.

We are on the road again today, driving back from the small town wedding to the large city airport, where we will fly back to our everyday existence. And even though the exhaustion from four days of late nights and busy days will carry through the week, the trip was very much a success: a few nights away from it all, temperatures in the 80’s and 90’s, time with Curtis’s family and the addition of new friends all came together with the reminder that hopefully comes to all married people when there is a wedding: remember where you came from, remember how you felt, cling tight to the words that you spoke, for today is merely a symbol—now you go out and bring it to life.

Friday, September 2, 2011

84 East

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We left the great state of Alaska at 12:55am Thursday morning, and arrived in the Northwest three hours later. Going on less than three hours of sleep with swollen feet left me listless and nauseous—and feeling the need to keep my mouth shut at all costs. Thirty minutes later, a cup of coffee in hand, I understood Curtis’s life a bit better.

“Now I see why you drink so much coffee. This really is a drug,” I commented to him as we claimed our bags, one of which apparently missed the flight. Earlier in our walk through Portland’s airport I commented to him that three hours of sleep did not make me feel like a very healthy person.

“It’s an acquired taste,” Curtis replied.

Let’s just hope I never have to work on my palate.

We hit the road by 6am, and drove out of town in a morning darkness I haven’t witnessed since last April. The landscape of pine-laden, lush hills slowly turned into dry, desert looking rock formations, and the sun rising to reveal a blue sky was a welcome change after the downpours of rain we have had the past few days.

After an hour and a half of driving we stopped at a restaurant recommended to us by the rental car agent: Cousins. And, in case you were wondering, that is what everyone called us. Back on the highway again it was clear that the lack of sleep was beginning to wear on us, our conversation slowing a bit, our eyes becoming heavy against the bright sun.

As a child my family often drove up and down the West Coast once or twice a year to visit relatives and friends, packing up the car for ten, twelve, fourteen hour days accompanied by Adventures in Odyssey, new coloring books, and regular rest area stops. By the time I was twelve I could predict the likely stops along I-5, and name the towns along the way.

Today’s drive reminded me of these trips, though this time I am with Curtis’s family instead of my own. The miles of rural landscape, the occasional stretch of the legs and moderately tended public restrooms, the hours of quiet to sit and think and dream, it all felt very familiar. And I found myself wondering if the person I was at twelve knew that those trips would be the source of such nostalgia so many years down the road.

The older I get the more I grasp what will stick with me long term and what will pass and never be thought of again. The more I write the more I am glad I will have a recording of how I felt on occasions such as this, sleep deprived and slightly carsick from sitting in the back of the minivan: satisfied, full, and in awe of the way that life brings us back to places I was long ago, unsure of if I would every return.
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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rich

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Today I felt rich:
A morning with Curtis not in a rush to head to the hospital
A lunch with good conversation, a welcome break from a hectic day
A workout in the rain, that still felt refreshing even as I nursed an injury from the sidelines
And dinner with Curtis's family, all together from islands and other states, ready for a weekend altogether--the first since last Christmas

This weekend we add another place to the family table when Curtis's brother gets married, and I plan on feasting my senses on everything around me. I hope for rest, but realize I will most likely return to work exhausted--but thoroughly satisfied.

There are days when get lost in the monotony of every day life, and there are days like today--when the richness of all I am blessed with seems to overflow.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Hunting for Predictability

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My mother raised me with a love for fresh air: outside, inside, everywhere. It didn’t matter where we lived or what the temperature was, the windows would be open often, satisfying her need for “new air”, her need to dispel a stuffiness that often only she could sense.

Today when I got home from school I was cold. The condo, which has held a comfortable temperature for the past few months without the aid of our heater, is starting to dip into uncomfortable ranges. The weather is starting to change, reflected in the leaves as much as the thermometer. And even as I crave the elusive clear, sunny day, the chill that comes with the absence of clouds is unmistakable. Soon the snow will arrive, first in a thin blanket and then in rich layers that settle onto roads and forest paths groomed for skiing, plowed for driving, and protecting the foliage until it appears again next year.

The school year is now in full swing, the honeymoon phase over, the true colors beginning to shine. As I become more comfortable and familiar with my students and classes, they become more honest as well—sometimes with frank or awkward conversations, sometimes with disrespectful or inappropriate comments. Every year that I teach I realize that every group of students is unique. Some forget pencils but always remember their homework. Some never read instructions but are honest in every discussion. Some follow directions perfectly but have trouble thinking outside the box.

This year is barely in swing, but I’m already beginning to sense the strengths and weaknesses of my classes. One class might appear to understand everything—until I examine their work more closely. Another class may ask endless questions but show their depth of thought in surprising ways.

The first few weeks feel a bit like a scavenger hunt, looking for clues about how the instruction is going to play out, trying to get a feel for the year. The reality is that there is little that can be predicted in a school year, just like I cannot predict the first snow. It will come, and winter will last several months and then the snow will melt. The trees will bloom, the weather will warm and in nine months I will say goodbye to a class that I finally know well, to trade them in for another classroom of strangers.

Eventually I will strike a balance as I get to know the intricacies of my classes, and once I hit the rhythm of the year I may get lost in the lull of routine. Until then I continue with my hunt for clues, knowing that this year’s students—just like every year before—are one of a kind.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Enjoying the Ride

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It is possible that I go overboard when I use metaphors in the classroom. Perhaps it is the curse of being an English teacher, perhaps that is just how I see life--through connections and reflectionships between experiences and practices in seemingly unrelated areas of life. Whatever the reason, I clearly have a problem with it. I can only hope that my students make sense of my mixed metaphors as they dominate my explanations of writing form and manner, trying to help them understand what being a writer is really like.

A few years ago while trying to explain the expository essay to a group of seniors I started to explain it in terms of prom: the importance of presentation, the value of the dress as a crucial centerpiece while the accessories--crucial in accent and completion--could not function on their own. We discussed first and last impressions, the disrupted facade when the outfit was ruined with a trip or a spill, and the importance that this impression last beyond the experience, much like good writing should continue to hang in our subconscious beyond mere consumption.

Now that I teach younger teenagers, the prom illustration had to be updated a bit. I have used sandwiches to illustrate the layering of information and analysis, but this time I was looking especially for a means to illustrate the reality of editing--that it isn't a quick process, that your first draft shouldn't be your final, that reading your personal narrative once over doesn't constitute a finished draft. So this time we spoke about cleaning. We discussed the basic vacuum and windex once-over you could give your house, the second layer cleaning in dusting the tops of bookshelves and picture frames, the deep cleaning you might do in wiping baseboards and wiping down walls and corners. Based on the looks on their faces it was pretty obvious who had taken part in such cleaning expeditions at home and who had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. Cleaning the walls? Who does that?

Despite the breakdown in my attempt at expressing how deep editing can go, and how long it can take if your really analyze each sentence and word, it seemed to at least begin to get the idea across. One ninety minute block period isn't an unrealistic time to clean up an essay; in fact, some writers would quickly argue it is only the beginning.

One of my favorite things about teaching adolescents in their view of the world; it is so straight forward. "This is how you write; this is how you fix, and then you are finished," their eyes tell me. As an adult I can look back and know I had the same view in my writing as a teen, and that I have since found writing to be a bit more layered and complex--just like life.

Every time I have students submit writing I experience a combination of excitement and dread. I love the glimpse they give me into their lives, and I get so weary of the time-intense process that evaluating and grading actually is. At best they will reflect their understanding of the writing process I tried to teach; at worst they show me the communication breakdown that ended with assignment a far cry from what I was hoping. And in that way I guess it makes my existence a lot like theirs, riding a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows while trying to assign objective grades to topics that are clearly a bit more complicated.

(Pardon the metaphor...)

Regardless, this weekend will find me with a stack of stories on my lap as we venture out of town for the weekend. The weather isn't expected to be stellar, but the scenery rarely fails to impress--with or without the sunshine. And that, my friends, makes any stack of grading a bit more enjoyable.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Settling Back In

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The window in our apartment in rural Alaska, which I stared out of in the afternoons, anxiously awaiting Curtis's return home.

Curtis couldn't sleep last night, and I awoke in the middle of the night to an empty bed. In the midst of the middle-of-the-night haze, I could not remember if he was supposed to be home or not. Was he at the hospital? The middle of nowhere Alaska? Doing something else I should remember? He has never been as consistent of a sleeper as I have, prone to getting up in the middle of the night to read for a while, cuddled up on the couch. I guess I never knew that people did this before I was married. I assumed that all adults, once tucked into bed for the evening, stayed there as they had been trained to as children-- until the acceptable time to get up had arrived.

I am finding that this summer's separation has sent me into a nostalgic, reflective state about our marriage, which marked four years while we were hundreds of miles apart. Perhaps the old adage is true: absence makes the heart grow fonder. I would also add that it reminds you of all the things you used to have control of while you were single, and all the ways you have grown to accommodate another once you share the same home.

One of my professors in college lost her husband to an unexpected health tragedy before I met her, leaving her as a single mom with two small children. One of her friends painted a watercolor series to represent this experience in her life, characterizing two trees that grew together, only to have one fade away. I was always haunted by this artwork as a student visiting her house, and I continue to remember this visual--especially as I have a spouse of my own that I have become intertwined with. The absence of what has become a fixture truly changes the way one operates in life, no matter how much I try to convince myself that my independence leaves me largely unaffected.

One of my coworkers was reunited with her husband after seeing him only once this last year. His military absence, the third they have endured in over twenty years of marriage, strains their relationship to say the least. Yet this coworker is quick to remark about how much better things are now than they were in the past--Skype alone has revolutionized what it means to be across the world or across the state.

Sometimes my students remark on the beauty that will be their lives someday, when homework is a thing of the past, as will be parental boundaries, mandatory dress codes and other restraints by which they feel stifled. When they remark about this future perfection I try to remind them with stories of my own that life is never perfect: there is always someone telling you what to do, how to dress, and restraining your "ideal" with reality. This world we live in is beautiful and fulfilling, but it is also broken.

I guess that is the beauty of a separation that has finally come to an end; it leaves me so thankful for the struggles that come in sharing living space, because they are also accompanied with joy. This morning I asked my coworker how married life was treating her these days. She commented quickly that she's never been so happy to be frustrated with her spouse. "It's glorious," she stated.

And even though our two month separation isn't anything close to a year, I would surely agree.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Equations

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My birthday celebration at our condo last week. We discovered moments before this that candles had apparently not made the "move" list. It was the first birthday celebrated at our house, after all.

If I were to create an equation for the presence of writing in my life, it might look something like this:

Job + Coaching + Curtis = Little time for writing.

My life has gradually been filled to bursting these past three weeks, first with the start of a new season, then with the addition of the school year, and finally with Curtis’s return home. It hasn’t been a seamless transition—there always seem to be aches with growing to absorb a change, even when it’s one I have weathered countless times before—but generally these are all changes I welcome with open arms. I love my work with students, both in the classroom and in athletics, and I love having Curtis back at home—even if that means that my systems and organization are disrupted, the laundry piles up twice as fast, and the food seems to be perpetually eaten.

Consequently, I haven’t had much time to sit and think. Sometimes I lie awake in the night, listening to quiet, trying to process the day: What was that student’s name? What could that athlete have done differently? Why did it bother me so much to see Curtis’s travel toiletries out for a week following his return?

Writing has become a necessary processing of life for me, if not in this venue, in an unpublished document stored safely away on my computer hard drive. I think more clearly and value the details of life more fully when I sit and enumerate my experiences on paper, often planning hours in advance for a window of writing that might possibly present itself—only to find it slip away at the mercy of a bathroom needing to be cleaned or dinner that has yet to be made.

I suppose it is nothing surprising to see optional life activities sacrificed at the alter of necessity, and yet this optional life activity of writing has become necessity—even with all the other loves I compress into my limited twenty-four hours.

Yes, the school year has started. I hope in its midst that I can hold onto slivers of contemplative rest, left over from a quiet summer. After all, I often feel that the opposite of the above equation leaves me in an even more dissatisfying lurch:

No job + No activities + No company = Nothing to write about anyway.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Here Comes the Sun

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The sun came out yesterday in glorious summer form, taunting me as I stared out the window from my classroom and warming my shoulders as I ran with the students at practice, but it only added to a glow I already had.

You see, Curtis is coming home today—finally.

It has been a long summer for our relationship, feeling kind of like college when we would part ways for the summer. We did get together every once in a while—a week at the end of June, almost two weeks at the end of July—but when you total the time, he has been gone for eight weeks this summer, and I’ve been out of town with him for fewer than two weeks.

The summer has still had plenty of bright spots: trips out of town, projects completed, time with family and friends in generous amounts. Yet in the midst of all the enjoyment was also the realization (in case I needed a reminder) of how much Curtis adds to so many of my life experiences.

I guess that it’s good that I married the guy, because I love having him around.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Lessons in Persistence

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I have a pair of shorts I still wear regularly that my mom bought for me back in high school. The edges are slightly frayed, the seam on the left side torn slightly, the string initially thread around the waist long since pulled out in the wash. But despite the stains, the missing stitches, and elastic that is growing weak, the shorts work just fine for a long run in the wood where no one cares what I look like as long as a little mud is a welcome addition.

On Friday the sun came out for the first practice all week. Wednesday’s slop fest was followed by an even worse run on Thursday where the valley between two mountains was a wind tunnel and the rain pelted our faces with such a stinging force that I couldn’t look ahead without squinting and shielding my eyes for a quick glance. My coat rustled in the wind like a parachute, and the wind howled so loud I could hardly speak to people right beside me.

On Friday we talked about mental toughness. Sure, the conditions were miserable Thursday and some of the athletes were ill prepared—but could they have pushed further? So much of athletics is mental toughness: what do you believe you are capable of? When the wind and rain are in your face, can you run a couple more steps? A half-mile? Four?

If there is one thing I have gained from twelve years of running, it is an increased appreciation for the difference between mind and body. Eight years of organized competition and two marathons later I know that it is very easy to cave when the workout is hard, the conditions are bad, or I just don’t feel good. And sometimes—knowing that I could continue—I stop.

One morning a couple summers ago Curtis and I woke four hours before church to fit in a twenty-mile run. It was a rainy day at the end of a month long visit that we spent sleeping on a futon at my mom’s house, and I just couldn’t do it. I was leaving to fly back to the Midwest without Curtis, who had to finish a rotation. My body was tired from the endless miles that I was logging at the peak of marathon training, and the endless rain that August grated on my optimism. I wanted sunshine. I wanted more sleep. I wanted more time with my husband. I had mentally lost the battle for that run hours before my alarm went off as I lay awake in bed dreading it.

After church we had a four-hour block before dinner, before my flight, and we set out to complete the deferred run. It was still gray and raining, but the earlier defeat had not sat well with me, and I knew if I got on the plane without completing it I would spend fourteen hours disappointed. So Curtis hopped on the bike and we ran…and ran…and ran. All the way out to my old house, past the school I would get a job at two years later, up the epic hill that challenged me endlessly on summer training runs in high school and college, and around the routes that I traced during high school practices over and over again.

I walked away from that run soaked, chaffing, and with an aching Achilles tendon that would give me trouble for the next three weeks. But I got onto that plane with soreness that kept me awake and satisfied on three flights, and through the full day of in service training that followed. I had won the mental fight that day, and would find that training perhaps even more valuable when the marathon race the following September turned into a battle to finish rather than to hit a particular time.

Coaching a high school team that runs on the same trails and races at the same venues that I did is a perfect avenue for wandering down memory lane on a regular basis. And in revisiting specific runs and races I find myself measuring how far I have been stretched and how much I have experienced since high school.

A lot of my athletes would benefit greatly from an extra measure of mental toughness, that will to push through discomfort and adversity when they meet it in practice or races. The reality is that most of them haven’t had the opportunity to gather it yet. They haven’t yet really struggled for something, fought for something, worked against opposition for a goal that couldn’t possibly be lost. And that, perhaps, is my favorite part of coaching. While I can’t force anyone to fight for a race or a workout that they could just as easily coast through, I can certainly offer them the opportunity.

Sometimes one opportunity is all it takes: the chance to learn that pushing a moment longer, hanging on a second more is the difference between success and just another day. At times the only thing on the line is a race, or a long run in training for a bigger event. Other times it’s one more day at work, one more conversation about a difficult topic, or one more hour of being optimistic about a difficult situation. Whatever is at stake, I feel like challenging workouts and long runs on the trails have trained me to withstand the circumstances in life that wear me down to a breaking point. There may be nothing special about a pair of old running shorts and trails that weave through neighborhoods around town, but this is the uniform I wore in learning important life lessons, and those routes hold the same nostalgia as a valuable text.

I wish I could share these truths with high school students in a language they would understand. I would love for them to understand that fighting for a workout is good practice for fighting for substance in life . But I know that if someone had told me all this when I was fourteen, I would have raised an eyebrow and tucked it in the back of my mind with wisdom that I knew to have value but didn’t quite understand.

Years down the road, when I had learned the truth for myself, I would have finally understood what I had to recognize for myself—and I hope that they can do the same.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Chasing the Chill

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Tundra cotton on a rainy day last week...


I learned a long time ago that newspaper stuffed into soaking wet running shoes helps them to dry out faster. I am hoping that 22 hours will be long enough.

Today was day three of cross country season, and even though it has rained every day, today was the pinnacle of sloppiness. It didn’t take more than 100 meters to determine that the fields we were running for our workout were logged with water from days of rain. First it soaked our shoes and socks, then as the workout proceeded it was kicked up in our faces and up our backs—soaking every piece of clothing we were wearing and freckling our faces with mud.

I finished practice with waterlogged shoes, sore legs, and a bruise on my calf the shape and size of a small carrot. I don’t remember where I got it (nothing has changed since I was a child, apparently), but it is very sensitive to both touch and movement.

Also needed in 22 (well, now 18 hours)? A fully-functional left calf muscle, to help me climb a mountain during tomorrow’s practice.

There’s no question that the soreness I gather from the first week of practice lingers longer than it did when I was in high school, but the satisfaction of completing punishing runs and workouts is just as fulfilling as it was at fifteen. Challenging and testing my body physically is one thing that I will always have an odd attraction to, even if it leaves me staggering around slightly hunched over and not always stable in step in the evening and days that follow.

It has been a quick adjustment back into society these past three days, with details that have been conveniently out of sight needing to be attended to: a large stack of mail, an empty refrigerator, plans for a quickly approaching school year. Yet the rhythm of daily workouts, which will quickly be joined by daily teaching, is welcome after two weeks in the middle of nowhere with hours to walk the tundra, to bake bread, and to read leisurely to the sound of rain on the windows.

Vacations, as wonderful as they are, are only enjoyable because of the substance of life there is to return to. This trip, this summer, has left me rested and ready to rejoin the workforce, the schedule, hours that exhaust and fulfill simultaneously.

When my job finds me trying to keep up with teenagers, headed home wet and cold for the third day in a row, and cringing when I try and climb the stairs to my condo, I find myself satisfied and thankful. There are many things I am thankful for tonight: a job that I enjoy, a body that withstands punishing workouts, and a hot cup of tea to chase the chill—at least until tomorrow.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Fog, Spaghetti, and Definitions of Happiness

I found this quote this morning and immediately did a self-evaluation: “Ashley, what are you not appreciating that you could be?”



I’ll tell you what I wasn’t loving: the cloudy/misty/rainy concoction that was brewing outside, rotating approximately ever 47 minutes but never letting on any hint of sunshine.

Yesterday, you see, had set the bar high. Yesterday the sun came out with such fervor that I put on shorts and a tank top and sat outside our apartment to work on online course work. The glare was strong, but I persevered, determined to be out in the sun as much as I wanted. After an hour I was so hot (and so un-sunscreened) that I ventured back inside. This also may have been due to the fact that while reading notes from a very dark screen works okay, taking a test when you’re not exactly sure what the question says is not as good of an idea.

And what happened? The sun stayed out—all afternoon and evening. Curtis and I ventured out for a walk later that evening and the heat remained. The horizon was beautiful, the tundra was green, and the streets were plentiful with smiling faces fit to enjoy the miraculous weather that should not be taken for granted.

It was too good to last, of course. Today I woke to the sound of construction on the neighboring hospital at 6am, and peered outside to see a dense mist forming a dark fog around the premises. The ubiquitous rain clouds had returned to their typical places, ready to set up camp for another few weeks, I’m sure.

As the morning turned into afternoon and the clouds refused to offer any hope of breaking, I did what is often a good remedy for dark, rainy days: I made some good food. Leftover spaghetti? Thank you very much. Garlic, cheesy toast to go with it? Yes, of course. Find a good recipe to work on this afternoon? Sounds like a marvelous idea. After all, if the weather is heavy and the tundra is looking particularly damp, a kitchen full of supplies is an excellent source of entertainment—and certainly worth appreciating.

Now to decide on a recipe…

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Wednesday's blue skies, which were suprisingly replicated Thursday evening as well...

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Journey to Rural Alaska: Have and Have Nots

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Trips away from home are always a good reminder of what I have that I normally take for granted—be it gas for less than $6 a gallon, or milk for less than $9. Cost of goods aside, there are still a lot of little things that cause me to appreciate the details of my everyday life that I don’t normally notice.

Take the temperature of water in the shower, for example. Taking a shower here is cause to get a bit nervous because the temperature swing is extreme. The first time I experienced the scalding jump I leapt onto the edge of the tub and used the shower curtain as a shield to protect my burning legs. I have since picked up on the slight decrease in water pressure that precedes the temperature jump. This has saved me much internal screaming, though the length of my current showers will make any water conservationist proud.

Also going to be appreciated when I return home? A general value for aesthetics. The apartment we live in, while bigger than our condo, and two floors to boot, feels a lot like a dorm. This is probably due to the weathered couch, mismatched furniture, drooping curtain rods and other window coverings merely thumb-tacked to the wall.

The wall decorations are a generous smattering of posters by a Californian photographer who likes to capture Alaskan landscapes and wildlife. Creepy bear picture? Check. Mt. McKinley? Check. Sunset over mountains? Check. I think all the classic Alaskan photography bases are covered. Also in attendance? Burnt orange counter tops and dark wood cabinets, circa 1973.

Even with the lacking décor and unpredictable water temperature, it’s impossible to complain about the location. Not only are we a (literal) stone’s throw from Curtis’s work, we are also right off the boardwalk—a system of wooden sidewalks that are stilted above the tundra. These offer a more scenic route than the shoulder alongside the road, not to mention you don’t have shield your eyes from dirt getting thrown up by passing vehicles.

Yet the biggest surprise I have found while being away is my enjoyment of a lack of cell phone service. Sure, I have the internet, and online communication keeps me more than connected to what is going on back home and beyond, but the absence of one more device that is tied to me when I go out has been refreshing. When we head out on walks, no one can get a hold of us. When we are visiting with neighbors, no one can interrupt. I feel like I’m pretty liberal in my ability to ignore calls until it is convenient to return them, but just knowing that there aren’t any calls or texts to get back to can be freeing. And perhaps the biggest factor is that most people know they can’t get in touch with me except through online communication, and so whatever would normally be important or urgent is inevitably put on hold.

When Curtis and I were at the campout last month we ended up talking for a while to the resident that had just finished this rotation, asking her about everything from what to bring to what her experience was like. She made an offhanded comment about feeling so overwhelmed in being back, so many people, so much busyness, it just felt like a lot to her.

I guess I will probably feel a little bit of the same, even though I have not been here for the whole term. There is an absence of duties in being away, and even in the midst of potential boredom it feels like a bit of a vacation. Sure, most people don’t head off to rainy tundra when they have time off, but getting out of town and away from it all is relaxing no matter where you end up—even if it’s surrounded by dorm décor and posters with curling corners. It is no resort, but at least it has a lot of personality.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Journey to Rural Alaska: Unexpected Discoveries

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One of the parts I enjoy most about being in a place I have never been is exploring: looking around, taking in the scenery—both creator and man made. Head a few hundred miles West in Alaska and you find a place that looks nothing like “stereotypical” Alaska: flat, open land. Many villages throughout rural Alaska are set up on rivers, and this one is no different. Before planes, the water was the primary means of travel. It takes you out to the ocean to fish or further inland to visit other villages. When it freezes it is still a valid highway, offering a route unencumbered by foliage—not that the tundra brush is much to be trifled with.

Curtis and I have ventured out on several adventure walks since I made my way in. We have walked to the grocery store, along the riverbank, and out into the tundra—flat wilderness that extends like farmland in the Midwest, as far as the eye can see.

It’s easy to happen on small treasures when we’re not looking for anything in particular: decorated dumpsters proclaiming inspiring messages, abandoned jeans in the midst of tundra with no apparent sign of ownership, a local teen burning letters not far from the post office, explaining with a smile to us that he has no interest in reading them.

Everywhere I go it is more than apparent that life in the village is unlike any place I have lived, from the grocery store prices that cause any casual out-of-towner to do a double take (or more) to the riverbank turned parking lot being occupied by more than a couple of boats. Everything is a bit more weathered, compliments of limited paved roads and freight costs that make cleaning seemingly futile and the simplest home improvement project impractical.

In the short time Curtis and I have been in the village it seems like everyone is eager to make a new friend, from the invitations to lunch after casual attendance at church, to a dinner late into the evening with the family of a man Curtis met at work. We may have been the only non Spanish speaking people in attendance, but the food was spectacular, the company was genuine, and English was spoken at least forty percent of the time.

There will be many things I will likely forget about this trip long after we have returned to our everyday routine. I hope that an appreciation for a slower pace and effortless community are not among them. To spend the afternoon in a pair of rubber boots wandering in open land—rain or shine—is more satisfying than I might have expected. And sharing a watermelon--which was referred to as costing $100, and honestly might not have been a joke—with two families I have never met, couldn’t understand half the time, and enjoyed a game of scrabble with nonetheless, was wonderful as well.

Clearly a visit to rural Alaska hardly makes me an expert, but it does reinforce what Curtis’s parents have been telling us for years—it is the people that make a place great. That Curtis and I can be so easily enveloped into the local culture—be it invitations to the weekly Latin dance class or bingo, dates with local runners at 5:30am along the river bank, or a bilingual dinner to share expensive produce and international cuisine—is a testament to the warmth that exudes from this rainy, wind-battered place.

Rural Alaska is facing a lot of challenges right now from education to employment to the ways that subsistence and traditional village living is threatened. Yet there is no question that despite these modern challenges this town still embraces a value for people above possessions, quick to share what they have to offer with those around them—even if only there for a visit. Perhaps this is the best treasure to be found out here in the wilderness, where the appearance can be deceiving to so many from the outside, and a visitor can’t even come close to predicting what there is to be found.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Journey to Rural Alaska: 150 pounds & a lot of free time

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When the plane landed and the passengers began to depart, there had already been several things making this trip different than usual. First? The front half of the plane was devoted to cargo—windows non-existent, stairway up to the rear of the plane, all of which worked to all passengers to check three fifty pound bags free of charge (well, let’s just say it was included in the price of admission).

Packing and planning for this trip (both mine and Curtis’s) started weeks ago, both in planning for food and dress. One day we sat in the kitchen and sketched out a rough menu plan. Figuring fifty pounds would be gear, that left the other 100 for food, drinks, and any other item we didn’t want to purchase at exorbitant prices out in what could officially be called “the middle of nowhere”.

We aimed for themes: Mexican food options, Italian food options, Mediterranean was unfortunately nixed when things started getting to heavy, but a little bit of Asian food made the cut. Produce, perhaps the most over-priced, low-quality item barely available in the bush (the name Alaskans use to refer to anywhere off the beaten path in Alaska, which usually means you have to fly to it), is hard to bring in any large quantities because it’s delicate and doesn’t keep as long as all the processed goods.

Our first shipment went in with Curtis, who left two weeks before me, and included all sorts of goods from tortillas to spaghetti sauce to trail mix to pre-packaged orange chicken. After he was sent off, we had an accumulation of goods that didn’t make the cut: a couple pounds of pasta, a package of pita chips, four cans of tuna. After he evaluated the pantry at the apartment given to him to stay in while out of town we reevaluated my drafted list again: there was already plenty of pasta, some baking staples, lots of peanut butter but no jelly.

While I packed on Tuesday for the trip, I was constantly adding and removing items as the weight limit loomed in the balance. Add a book, take away a can of tuna; add a raincoat, remove a can of refried beans. It’s a funny thing planning at the mercy of a weight limit, and my back will likely remind me for the next several days that lifting fifty pound bags on and off a scale repeatedly is not the kindest thing I have ever done for it (even if I was trying to lift with my legs). It reminded me of the often cited hypothetical question "If you were headed to a deserted island and could only bring three things with you..." Except in this case I was headed to a place cut off, and 150 pounds was all I could take.

After landing, meeting up with Curtis and gathering the bags to the car, we made our way to his apartment. Because of the travelling nature of many people that work at this hospital, they have housing available nearby that is roughly furnished and decorated (more on that later), available to the many employees that come and go. And when I say the housing is nearby, I mean it is literally right next door. There’s a cute little boardwalk that leads from the complex to the hospital, and driving from one to the other would undoubtedly take longer than walking.

Interesting fact about the apartment complex? Curtis’s parents, who lived in this same small town for a decade, had their children here, and worked at this same hospital--they lived for a few years in the apartment right next door. It’s funny to try and picture how things were different thirty years ago, and funnier still to realize that there was no way to predict when they were young and on an adventure that thirty years later their son would return to this same place—literally right next door.

I am interested to see how these next couple weeks turn out, living in a tiny town cut off from society with a laptop, a stack of books, an online class and some curriculum materials. I can be pretty good at entertaining myself and keeping busy, but two weeks is a lot of running, reading and thinking. In some ways I think it will be good to slow down, to be cut off and free to wander and explore. In other ways I am a person that thrives on productivity and here there are no mountains to climb, no walls to paint, and no errands to run. It’s just me, the sound of the rain on the boardwalk, and the far off buzz of the hospital.

Perhaps it will be cleansing to be away from it all for a while.
Perhaps it will make me appreciate all I have.
Either way, two weeks of anything can’t be that bad...
...just requiring a bit of patience and creativity, and a pantry full of food.