Tuesday, December 8, 2015

This I Believe

I believe we can do hard things. I'm reading my students' postings about how hard the end of the semester is and notice one student's comment: we always survive. I believe we can survive hard things.

When I was working on my Master's degree, I participated in an experimental program the university only offered twice. The price was good--the cost was great. We went to classes full time two summers. In between, during the school year, I would attend classes every other weekend:  10 hours on Saturday and 10 hours on Sunday. I was teaching junior high at the time, so I would teach five days, go to classes for two days, teach five days, and then have two days off. I had six children at home at the time. My family agreed that I should do it, so they were great in picking up some of the home pieces (my husband even tried to cook a turkey for one Sunday dinner--disaster!). The load was tremendous. In fact, it got so bad that I had tremors from typing and writing so much (on my students' papers and writing my own). My mother was convinced I had a tumor. I didn't. I had stress. I had a constant tension headache, which I ignored. I had other ailments. When my back went into muscle spasms just bending over to pick up a piece of paper, I went to the doctor. Turns out our bodies give us signals. When we are under stress, if we ignore one signal, it will give us another. . . and another. . . and another: until we pay attention. I survived.

A few years later I started a doctoral program. The schedule was more spread out. Still full time classes in summers, but not on weekends. Night classes, two a week. I was teaching high school now. I would drive from school into Seattle twice a week for classes that lasted from 4:30-7:30 or 5:30-8:30. Then I would drive across Lake Washington to my home: to kids and homework and prep for tomorrow's teaching and anything else a mother/wife/teacher/daughter/church member has to do. In some ways, it was easier. I had weekends back. But the workload intellectually was much more intense. I thought I was handling it. I was a person who handled things, even if I did get physical symptoms. Until one day in the University of Washington library.

I was doing research and went to the copy machine to make copies of some articles to study in more depth at home. Standing at the copy machine, repetitively turning pages and pushing buttons, I lost my breath. I couldn't breathe! I started gasping and weeping. I didn't know what the matter was, but I knew something was wrong. The weird thing is that no one stopped me as I made my gasping, weeping way out of the library to my car. I made a lot of noise trying to gulp in air as I drove across the bridge--and to a friend's house. Why not my own? I don't know. But when she opened the door, she knew immediately what to do: she pushed me into a chair, pushed my head down, and brought me a paper bag to breathe into. A panic attack. That's what I'd had. I'd heard of them, but had never had one. My friend's daughters had, so she knew. How could a person panic copying articles at a copy machine? What was there to panic about? What I learned is that we all have limits. I was older, but I had never learned my limits. I know now more about myself and about others. I don't judge like I used to. We all have limits--and they are not all the same.

I finished my doctorate degree. I can do hard things. I learned how to take better care of myself. I learned that I don't have to make hard things harder. I learned I could let some things go: I didn't have to keep every ball in the air. I could take a detour now and then. I made choices about what was a priority in my life and in my family's life. My house wasn't as clean. We ate soup from cans or scrambled eggs and toast a lot more. I learned little signs that it was time to let something go, time to take care of myself. I learned that I could still push myself, I could do hard things, but I could also be okay with not being my best all the time. I learned to be okay with "this is the best I can do right now--and I'm okay with that." And even more, I learned to accept that in others: someone is unkind or doesn't do what I expect? Maybe that's just the best they can be right now.

So, I believe we can do hard things. We can also make them harder than they need to be. But we can also accept ourselves for doing our best, even if that best isn't quite what we hoped it would be in our minds. That, too, is a hard thing.

Monday, November 23, 2015

"I really, really like myself"

My grandson's birthday is October 30. On that morning, he opened a present that was something he could wear to school for Halloween: a football uniform---no pads, but everything else. He is crazy about football, so I knew he would be excited. I had no idea how much.

Since his family currently lives with us, we see him everyday. On his birthday, there was a knock on my bedroom door about 7:00 in the morning. I said, "Just a minute--I have to finish dressing." It was about three minutes until I opened the door--and there he was: in a football stance to show off the wonderful uniform. I couldn't help but wonder if he'd been in that stance the whole three minutes!

I ooh-ed and aaah-ed about every aspect of the uniform: the helmet, the shirt, the pants, the black patches on his cheeks, the number on the jersey. For several minutes we admired the pieces and the whole. "You look great!" I told him. He stood for a moment looking down at himself through the face guard and then looked up at me: "I really, really like myself," he said.

Here he is at the end of the day--still dancing because he is so excited.

And here he is trying to get a drink from a straw without removing the helmet--I don't think he wanted to take it off to sleep that night!

Ever since, Gabe said that to me, I have thought about the power of that statement: I really, really like myself. I have been thinking what a wonderful world it would be if, every day, every one of us could put on a costume--football uniform, princess dress, superhero cape--look in the mirror, and say to ourselves: "I really, really like myself." Maybe, eventually, we wouldn't have to wear the costumes and could see what wonderful people we are without the extra outfit. We get beat up each day by the stresses and arrows of life. How great if we could start again each next day with that affirmation: I really, really like myself. I think the whole world would be a better place and we'd all be happier for it.

Friday, October 30, 2015


What is it about autumn that I love so much? I love to watch every single aspect of the visual display. I love the changing leaves. I love the kinds of flowers that bloom in fall--such deep, rich purples and oranges, and reds. I love the look of cornstalks and pumpkins and bales of hay. I love the smell in the air--cold and leafy, sometimes a whiff of smoke from burning leaves or fireplaces being lit on a cold night. I love the temperatures--both cool and warm but not too much of either. I love the clothes I get to wear--boots and sweaters and corduroy and denim. I love hot chocolate and pumpkin anything.

With all of that love, you'd think I'd like winter, too. There are holidays and families--and that's all good. And winter is okay,  at first. The snow is lovely the first few times it falls, blanketing everything in white cotton. And the deer that come out of the hills add a lovely feel to the picture. But I tire of the unceasing cold, the slippery roads and sidewalks, the snow that quickly turns dirty. I spend much of winter watching for signs of spring--and I'm really good at noticing the smallest signs. It's what comes of being an Alaskan: we always learned to watch for the slightest sign that our interminable season was coming to an end.

Spring begins for me when I see the first hint of green in the bare willow branches. They change color before they get leaves. I love seeing the bitty green buds on the trees I walk under each day on my way to work, the little green blades of hyacinths and tulips and daffodils peeking through the wet brown dirt as the snow melts, the pastel petals peeping out on the fruit trees. I love the promise of that bright lime green that is the color of spring: new and young and fresh. Winter is ending, and that's a good thing.

I endure summer. It's probably a remnant of my childhood, too, but I don't like blazing sun everyday. I enjoy a summer evening when it cools off (if it does) and I can swing in the back yard with the scent of honeysuckle (something I never had in Alaska) wafting on the breeze as the sun sets. I really love a good rain storm pounding away. But the days? I'd rather spend them inside. I don't like my skin burning. I'm not much of a water person, so water sports have little appeal. I tend to stay indoors and read, although an Oregon beach in summer is something I can do. I just don't get to often enough.

No. For me, the season is fall. It's the season that I wallow in, savoring everything about it. I hate to see it ending.

silver linings

I woke up with a migraine this morning--again. For the last few years, the doctor has had me on meds to control headaches and help with insomnia (a life-long affliction). But when I told him I had absolutely zero energy, no matter how much sleep I might get, that sometimes I felt like I couldn't take another step or get up off a chair, he said it was probably a side effect of the meds and suggested I try to go off them. I did. My energy level went back up. Hooray!

But I had forgotten how often I had migraines before. Now, I have them two or three times a week. I remember now the fear I walked around with, fear that one might be coming on. Was this blurred vision just tired eyes or the onset of another one? Was that flashing light at the edge of my vision just a trick of light or an indicator? Would I have one when I was trying to teach or give a talk? Because there are stomach/intestinal issues that accompany the migraine, I have to consider that, too. Am I going to be sick when I'm somewhere inconvenient? After the pain is gone, I feel kind of shaky and weepy, which can be a bad thing in meetings or events with strangers.

My grandfather had migraines, too. His were often food related--chocolate of all things. I would just have to die if chocolate triggered mine. Mine are more often triggered by stress; I've never noticed any food trigger that I can identify. One of my children has migraines, and (so far) one of my grandchildren does, too. Mine started as a girl, about 8 years old. My son was about the same age. It's a terrible affliction to pass along genetically, but at least we can learn coping strategies. My mother taught me not to go to bed. We can take medicine, and then we shoulder on. I'm glad now for that teaching. I need to keep going. When I told her that I was off the meds and having so many migraines now, she said maybe I should go on the medicine again. I didn't even think about it.
This morning, on my way to work, I saw this. The sun shining behind the clouds above the mountains. It was a perfect silver lining--something I've heard of all my life but can't remember ever seeing until now. I pulled over, took the shot, and thought for a bit. Everyone has challenges. I certainly wouldn't trade mine for anyone else's--and in many, many ways I know I have a blessed life. Not as many challenges as most people, I think. But sometimes, when the mood is just right, I might wonder a moment about the ones I have. Today, I was thinking, I'd rather have pain than the lack of energy I had before. That was debilitating. This is just inconvenient. That's a silver lining. I need to remember to look for them more regularly. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


Last weekend we went to Arizona for a grand-daughter's baptism. That was a special time. She was darling, and we had lots of fun with the grandchildren. Since our son and his wife were also visiting, and another daughter also lives there, we had 13 grandchildren in one place. As it sounds, it was a noisy time, filled with laughter.

My daughter-in-law, noticing that Garth Brooks would be in Phoenix that weekend, convinced us all to get tickets. It was a wild time. We had great seats and loved the concert. We stood a lot (I'd forgotten that about concerts). It was REALLY loud (my daughter and I had to plug our ears sometimes--and still our ears rang afterward!). It was visually interesting--an aspect that is a little new since I last saw Garth about ?? years ago. Here's a taste (if I can make this work):

As I look back, I realize that the concert was just a venue. It was a fun thing to do, but the most important thing was the time spent with our kids. We had the hour-long drive into town, first: a time to visit in the car. Then dinner--not where we planned because it was too busy, but still a time to share bites and laugh. During the concert, I watched the different reactions of my children: Mac and Julie danced and sang and waved and tweeted. Joe and Lindsey held each other and swayed--amid jokes. Joe was in the middle of the row and making cracks about everything the whole night (when I could hear him). Aimee clapped while Craig stood with his arms folded (normal for him--not a commentary--although he did watch some football on his phone at times).Now that they have families of their own, we often focus on the grandchildren in our visits, playing with them, reading and talking and playing games. This time at the concert was time with just the grown-up kids and reminded me--again--how much they have grown into people I really like. People who are fun and funny but also kind and thoughtful. It's a treasure to realize that my life has such people in it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

nut shell treasure

I found this perfect half shell on the ground as I was returning to my office after class. I almost walked past it, but decided to pick it up. So glad I did! It's a treasure. 

I don't know if the photos capture the miracle of this half shell, but it's a perfect cap for a sprite. About one inch in diameter, its bird-beak shingles layer like feathers, curving into a small point with a little tassel. It looks like a perfect winter cap, and the shades of golden brown would make a perfect contrast against the snow . 

Inside, the shell is even more beautiful with all its colors and textures. The velvet smoothness is a stark contrast to the bumpy exterior. The shifting colors ring the edge as a woody brown and then focus in a rich chestnut circle in the center. But there are layers to those, as well. A dark ring circles the chestnut center, and then a light ring of white pinpoints circles inside the chestnut--kind of like an eye, fascinating me with nature's artistry. 

I don't know why I picked it up. I think it's partly that having grandchildren has made me look at the little things in the world again, the tiny ants and the world that lives at their eye level. When I saw the little shell on the sidewalk, feet moving past it on both sides, my first thought was that my grandchildren would love it because it looked just like a little cap. But after I got a good, close look at it, I realized that I was so glad I had picked it up. It reminds me of the miracles that are all around me in the world, miracles just for us to notice and enjoy. The sunlight flickering on autumn leaves--golds and reds and oranges shining. The smell of the earth as it's readying itself for winter rest. In a little miniature, this shell is a treasure, caught in my hand, reminding me of all the treasures around me. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

At what age?

Last week I was at Bridal Veil Falls with a group of writers on a walk-and-write. We walk and visit a bit, sit and write, share our writing, and then repeat. At the base of the falls, we stopped for a few moments. An older woman was there with her family. As we looked in the pool for the fish, she spoke to us. She had some opinions on where the fish were, why the sign said No Wading, and the history of the restaurant. As her family started to encourage her to continue up the trail, she turned back to us and said: "It's almost Halloween, so I can do this." Then she gave the loudest, shrillest witch's cackle I think I've ever heard. The rocks echoed with it. She laughed, and turned to go. We settled down to write, but as we wrote, we could hear that cackle repeated again and again up the trail, its echo diminishing in the distance. "It's almost Halloween," she had said. As though a holiday almost a month away makes cackling like a witch appropriate. But obviously, she enjoyed it. And it made me smile.

We were visiting another church yesterday and observed a little girl--probably 6 or 7 years old--coming in, holding hands with her dad. She had red hair and a freckled face with a big smile. She was dressed in a princess dress--light blue chiffon with lace and layers. Her knee socks, though, were the highlight.They were striped, although some of the stripes held patterns, in some of the brightest colors imaginable: hot pink, bright orange, deep purple, and red. She made me smile--and as she walked past, her demeanor and smile toward me made me think she knew the effect her whole being in this outfit had. I told my husband that I wished I had the nerve to wear socks like that in public.

So, both these instances make me think about cultural pressures. Some of them are good because they help us get along. Fitting in is important, and smoothing the flow of society is important. But so is individualism. And society allows some without too much comment. But it's the clothes and actions that sometimes step a little outside of the accepted lines that make me wonder. Little children and old people seem to get a pass. But in the middle, we conform unless we want to pay a price. I'm not sure how I feel about it. A few years ago we had a colleague who was an unusual dresser. He was extremely tall, so he would have been noticeable anyway. But he dressed unusually enough in bright yellow pants and bow ties (as examples) that he drew more attention. He didn't stay long--there were other issues--but I have wondered how much the individual style so outside the norms for the academy might have played into his leaving. Did his style keep others from getting to know him better? Is there a cost, in some places and in some groups, that is too much--and keeps those of us who might want to wear brightly striped knee socks in public only wearing them at home? Maybe when I'm older, it will be okay.

Monday, September 28, 2015


Noses and Smells
On Saturday evening, I walked out of a meetinghouse and headed to my home, about a block away. I took a deep breath of the warm night air and smelled. . . honeysuckle. It smelled so good and sweet. Growing up in Alaska, I had read about honeysuckle and imagined how it might smell since none grew there, but now that I lived where honeysuckle grew, I knew it from my own experience. I loved the scent. As I walked, I thought about what a nice little blessing it was to walk through a warm honeysuckle-scented evening. I took several deep breaths, enjoying the perfumed air.

Until I was three houses from my own. Then the air changed. Drastically. And I knew what it was.

Four days earlier someone had hit a deer on our street. Its dead carcass had lain on the side of the road for all of the extra warm days since. First it bloated. Now it was deflated. And incredibly stinky. Today someone had tied a get-well balloon to its antlers. I don't know how they got so close. In the morning, the smell wasn't so bad, but by afternoon--and especially in the evening--it was horrid. We had to close the windows in our house and be sure not to leave doors open for any length of time. (Besides the stink, there were the flies!)

We had called and called for someone to pick up the deer, to no avail. The dead body lay there still, emanating waves of stink. I tried to hold my breath as much as possible as I hurried down the hill to my house. Luckily, it wasn't far. I ran up the front steps--grabbed the knob--and found the door locked!  I knocked  quickly and loudly. No one came. I rang the doorbell. I knew my son and his family were there. My husband was there. I saw an extra car in front of the house. We had visitors. There were people in that house, but they wouldn't answer the door! At this moment, I wondered if the sense of smell I had felt such gratitude for before was going to be the death of me. Was I going to throw up? I pounded on the door. And finally glimpsed my son coming to unlock it. I burst in and shut the door quickly. "Were you trying to kill me?" I asked him. He just laughed, but he knew what I meant. My daughter-in-law and I both have very sensitive olfactory senses. We smell things the men in our family can't smell. It can be a blessing. But it can also be a curse.

baking cookies and teaching writing

I love to make cookies. I like to eat them and share them, but mostly I like to make them. How can being a cookie maker make me a better writing teacher?

1. I love how the "product" is so yummy. I love that what I make is fun and good. Other household tasks--doing dishes, for example--might yield a product I need (a clean kitchen) but not necessarily one that I simply enjoy for its own sake.

     As a writing teacher, I need to remember that utility has its value, that we need to learn to write resumes and school writing, but sometimes we need to write what feels like play, something fun that we can share with others, something that is meant to give others pleasure too. Time for dishes, but also time for cookies.

2. I like the process of making cookies. If I make cookies with grandchildren, I get to enjoy the process with them. We talk and laugh as we measure and pour and stir. It is a process to share and have fun doing together. And when we're done, we can be proud of our collaboration. But I like to make cookies alone, too. Then there is time for contemplation. My hands are busy with soothing, familiar tasks--measuring and scooping, stirring and cracking, spooning and sliding--so my mind can relax and think about what really matters.

     As a writing teacher, I need to remember that the process doesn't always have to be the same. Sometimes we write with others; other times by ourselves. We enjoy the process either way. And the process needs to be familiar enough and comfortable enough that the writers feel relaxed and able to enjoy the process if possible. 

3. The final product--a cookie--brings happiness. I don't care who you are, if someone gives you a cookie, you feel happy. You feel loved. Cookies are just little bits of sunshine, and really, can eating just one be bad for anyone? No. And they make us happy.

     This is a little trickier. Not all writing pieces give pleasure and joy to the audience. Some writing makes us think--other writing may make us cry. Some can even make us uncomfortable. But all writing has something to celebrate, something to be happy about. I need to remember to look for the joy in each writing piece and celebrate that aspect, let that aspect bring both the reader and writer joy. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

sidewalk etiquette

So, I'm wondering about sidewalk etiquette lately. Two recent events led to this wondering.
1. I was walking on a fairly crowded sidewalk with lots of people walking both ways. I notice a young man coming the other direction toward me, texting as he walks. He is veering into the side of the sidewalk going the other direction, heading straight for me. I start slowing down and moving closer and closer to the curb. I am not sure what to do. Say something and startle him? Just step off the curb before he walks into me and let him fall off it a moment later? Bump into him? Luckily, just as I was getting ready to step off the curb and avoid a collision, he looked up and quickly jumped back into his own lane.
2. This time the sidewalk wasn't as full. But it was raining. Coming toward me was a couple, holding hands, and walking in the middle of the sidewalk. I realized that when we met, I would either have to step off the sidewalk or put my umbrella down (or it would hit them). Since they were taking their half out of the middle, what should I do?
I don't know if anyone has written a list of rules for sidewalk etiquette. I guess we just have to take each situation as it comes?

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Golden Tree: Trees on Fire

Last week I stepped outside to see the morning sun rising over the mountains and shining on this yellow tree across the street. The sun on those yellow leaves made the tree shimmer like something out of  a fairy tale. A tree of gold.

What a difference a week makes. Today, the smoke is so thick from the forest fires in the canyon that a haze covers everything.I can barely see, barely breathe. Nothing is golden today. Trees like this one are fueling the smoke that keeps us from finding the gold.

Instead, we all smell like we've been around the campfire too long. My hair grabs the smoky smell and won't let it go. My clothes smell like I sat on the windy side of the evening fire. Even food tastes of smoke. My throat has the tickle that comes before a coughing spell.

I am reminded, again, that life's moments--like a gold tree--are fleeting. We need to make mental images if we can't capture the memories with our devices.  Frost was right: nothing gold can stay.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

It's fall. Along with changing leaves and cooler evenings, school is starting. Shouts of children's voices ring out as they pass the house in the morning, new backpacks aboard, on their way down the hill to school. We have a first grader living with us this school year (along with his mom and sister while dad is working all over the country). This morning, during our new ritual of sitting on the front steps to wait for his carpool, Gabe reminded me of another sign of fall--book orders.

I have always been a reader. I taught myself to read (with a few of the side effects that always come along with teaching yourself anything), so that partway through my first grade year, I was moved to second grade. More stories there. Suffice it to say that, from a very early age, I could never have enough books. My school had a meager library, although the biography section was pretty good--I read everything in it; our town's only library was miles away and our family had only one car, which my dad took to work, so we rarely checked books out. Our family didn't have very much money, so when the book orders came, I would beg, and my parents would eventually relent: I could order one book--and ONE BOOK ONLY. As I recall, the books cost under a dollar then, a sign of times and other things, I suppose.

I would spend hours pouring over the book orders, probably a good reading experience in itself. I would narrow the choices down to five, then to three. Then I would try to think which one of those I really had to have. It was a tough decision to make, but eventually I would decide: either a Nancy Drew mystery or a Cherry Hill book about nursing. On rare occasions, something random like Little Women (my favorite book for two years). Once I tried Old Man and the Sea--fifth grade, if I remember correctly. I knew of Hemingway and thought I should read what grown-ups read. It was torture. I didn't veer away from Nancy Drew or Cherry Hill for a long time after.

Today, I have an office full of books. I have a home full of books--they are in every room of the house: literally. I have books stacked on my nightstand, my dresser, and the baker's rack in the kitchen. Books in the living room and books in the family room. Books in bathrooms and on the bench by the back door where we drop bags when we come in. I have books on my iPad and sometimes in my purse. Always in my suitcase. There are books everywhere in my life. But, still, when book orders start arriving in the fall, I feel the same sense of wonder--and desire--I remember from being young. I want to find another gem, another friend. So I still look at book orders, still dream of the wonder and possibility of a new book. And now I can do it with my grandson.