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.