Friday, September 30, 2011

Week Seven, or Elusive Rhythm

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



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

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

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

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


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

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.