Monday, May 29, 2017

All of the Pleasure, None of the Work

There's a 24-acre farm behind my house.  I love this a great deal.  In fact, sometimes as I let my gaze span across their hillside acreage, I pretend that I own this farm, down to the one time that I renamed the horses they had been boarding.

We've lived in our house for 11 years, and I still can't get over it.  I'm less than five minutes from a grocery store, a gas station, a Wal-Mart, and a shopping plaza, yet I also get to enjoy a farm that I don't need to maintain.  I reap all of the aesthetic pleasure, yet do none of the work.  It seems entirely unfair, like a gift I can't pay back.

Tonight as my kids were taking their baths and the evening was drawing to a close, Joel and I walked our own yard.  It's a beautiful space unto itself, one that's doubly enhanced by the farm's rolling hills. 


I thought back to how my youngest daughter's friends automatically clamored to the fence during her birthday party a few weekends ago, eager to see the newborn calves.  This is a sight for people.  It's not a typical backdrop to a backyard, and I don't want to forget it.  I don't want to ever get used to it.


So, on evenings like tonight as I walk along our gardens, noticing that the peonies are nearly past their prime, I pay close attention to what I see.


I notice the details that make us want to linger a little longer, like the bridge that invites kids (and adults alike) to walk over it.


Or the garden stools that say, won't you sit here for a while?


I notice how the clematis climbs its metal trellis,


and how the lace-leaf Japanese maple arcs over the bicycle decoration that my mom gave me.


I think about how colors compliment each other -- how purple and coral pop against a green backdrop,


and how the best lighting always comes right before the sun sets.  I see the little details when I slow down and remember to look, to really look. 


Years ago, I read a blog by a woman who was seeking advice from her counselor about happiness.  What do you envision a happy life to be?  What do you envision a happy home to look like? the counselor had asked.  Once the woman had envisioned her happiest self and home (it included baking cookies with her children), the counselor encouraged her to do those things.

This always has stuck with me.  What is my happiest vision for my home?  It's my kids playing outside, my neighbors dropping by to talk, and the people I love wanting to be together.  It's adding small beautiful touches, both inside and outside my home.  It's (trying to) keep things organized and simple enough that I'm not buried by or beholden to stuff.  It's reading good books, and being productive, and having some creative outlets.  It's working hard, but not being a slave to work so I still have the best of me to give when I'm home.


Tonight, as I walked my own backyard, looking at its quaint details and regarding the farm that I plan on always pretending to own, I realize that my vision of a happy life also includes taking evening walks with my husband around our yard during the spring and summer months.

It includes noticing and slowing down and not taking for grantedAfter all, perhaps the best way to pay back for this gift -- all of the pleasure, none of the work -- is simply to enjoy it.


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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Keep an Open Hand

My husband believes that Good n' Plenty candy is an acquired taste.  If this is true (and it likely is given that black licorice isn't universally loved), I guess that I acquired the taste during childhood when my dad would pour the candies into my hand.  I still like the simple, pretty appearance of the pink and white candy shells.


I recently bought a box, and this afternoon I poured myself a handful.  I had just returned from campus, and I was still mulling over an email I received about my teaching schedule for the upcoming fall.  I knew I needed to head out again and buy a few groceries for dinner before the kids got home from school, but then I remembered that I needed to switch the clothes from the washer to the dryer.

Finally, with the clothes in the dryer, my scrawled grocery list in hand, my keys located, and my thoughts still occupied with my pending teaching schedule, I headed to my car.  That's when I realized that I still had a handful of Good n' Plenty.  My fist was clenched around them; the pink and white coating had begun to smear onto my palm and fingers.

I'm not sure why this sight made me pause, but something was triggered when I saw the results of a clenched hand.  My hand, which could have been clean if I had just kept my palm open, was a sticky mess.  Sometimes, it feels right to clutch something, like it's somehow safer to exert a strong grip, but an open hand might be what's better.

As I drove to the store, I prayed.  I told God that I trusted Him with my teaching schedule, even if it was different than normal, even if it might need to be tweaked, even if it couldn't be tweaked.  And as I prayed, I felt my clenched hand opening up a bit, my strong grip loosening.  Somehow, just like the sight of my stained pink and white palm, I knew that this situation -- like most things in life -- ultimately would be better if I didn't hold on so tightly.

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Monday, May 22, 2017

Tame the Inbox. Prepare for the Worksheet Tsumani. (And Other Modern-Day Hurculean Tasks)

Last week, I reduced the number of emails in my personal inbox to 12.  I felt like I had slayed a dragon, which is somewhat of a self-congratulatory statement, but people, do you get swarmed with emails like I do?  (I hope you don't because I have a genuine fondness for you, my reader, and getting swarmed with emails is like getting swarmed by locusts, minus the end-of-days vibe.)

These emails just keep coming.  They continually appear.  One right after another.  More always arrive.  They don't stop.  They never end.  It's never-ending.

Some emails can be deleted on sight, of course.  Some automatically get filtered into little folders that I've created and named in the attempt to streamline this facet of life.  (You know, so I can ignore them from afar.)  But some emails require actual reading -- and, even more strenuous -- some require not only reading, but actual thinking and responding.

This latter category is where I struggle.  I'm quite good at reading an email and then responding to it in my head without legitimately responding with spoken or typed words, like I'm sending my message via mental telepathy, which is even less reliable than homing pigeon.  Certain days, I also excel at reading an email, recognizing that a response is being demanded from me, ascertaining that it's not urgent, and then copping-out by closing it and thinking, "I'll respond to that later."

That is how you build up an inbox with hundreds of messages, my friends.

For the record, I never struggle with keeping on top of my work email account.  I ride that wave just fine, thank you, partially because it's earmarked as work.  Since almost all of my work is time-sensitive, I'm automatically trained to knock it out, stat.

No, it's just my personal and blogging email accounts, which morph into one inky black hole of messages about school picnics, summer camp registration deadlines, overdue library books, school cafeteria account balances, dress codes for a child's end-of-year field trip, upcoming Girl Scouts meetings and tumbling events, requests for me to review products on my blog even though I don't write product reviews on my blog, one rogue Bath and Body Works sale update that somehow didn't get filtered to my "shopping" folder, and friendly messages or forwarded stories from my dad.

Last week as I regarded that tangled web of messages, I got serious.  Enough was enough.  I plowed through my inbox savagely, responding and deleting, deleting and responding.  I added items to my calendar, even.  (Except for those events and deadlines that I had already missed, at which point shrugged it off as one less thing to deal with, before deleting and marching onward.)

I slayed the dragon.  I tamed the beast.  I reduced the inbox to a singular page -- and less than a full one, at that.

It's good timing, too, as any parent of school-aged children knows.  Because in the next few weeks as school comes to a close, all of the papers and worksheets and projects that teachers have carefully filed away during the 180-day school year will be sent home, crumpled of course, in your children's backpacks where, upon reaching your house, they'll be splayed across every flat surface -- your kitchen table, the hallway, the family room floor -- until your home resembles a snow globe classroom that's been vigorously shaken, until you're convinced that your children's school paperwork is infinite, until you finally figure out a filing system, or dump everything into a box to sort later, or just throw it all out.  Because you know, deep in your heart, that another school year will eventually begin, and with it, a new influx of paperwork and emails.

Me: Empty your backpack.
Her: Done.


Yes, those days are coming, but for now, I'm resting in the fact that at least I'm on top of my inbox.

For now.  

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

What I want for Mother's Day. Really.

Happy Mother's Day!  Since the dawn of this holiday, I daresay there's never been a mom who's refused those precious illegible cards written on construction paper with blunt crayons, or the yarn necklace strung with elbow macaroni, or the iconic painted Dollar Store wooden picture frame that gets propped up with a wooden stick.  Homemade gifts are part and parcel of motherhood.

But I also think that each mom secretly harbors a list of what she really would like.  If you're like me, they really don't cost much at all.

1) Take a nap.  This one is obvious.  I want to take the type of nap where I wake up and can't remember my name, much less what day or time it is.  I don't even care if my splayed posture makes me resemble a crime scene victim, or whether my kids poke me and wonder if I'm still breathing.  I just want a little extra sleep.

 
2) Drink sweet tea.  Is drinking a vat of sweet tea good for me?  Certainly not.  Do I care today?  Not one bit.  I need something to rouse me from my lingering nap-induced haze, after all, and I can't think of anything better than 32 fluid ounces of tried-and-true refreshment to make that happen.  Today there are free passes all around.  Sweet tea for everyone!


3) Make no decisions.  What's for lunch?  I don't know.  What's for dinner?  I don't know.  What should I do?  I don't care, as long as it's legal and doesn't involve setting things on fire, and I might even be loose on that last stipulation if you leave me alone and don't require me to form an opinion because I can't.  As in, I am physically and mentally unable to evaluate options, weight consequences, arbitrate between conflicting factions, or arrive at any conclusions today.

You see, today I have no vested interest in deciding what anyone eats or does, myself included, except that I've already laid claim to my sweet tea and nap.  (Those are non-negotiable.  I have already decided upon them wholeheartedly, like following Jesus.  No turning back.)  Everything else must be decided by someone else.  I have no capacity for decisiveness today.

4)  Have backpacks empty on their own accord.  There have been roughly 32 weeks this school year alone, and scientifically speaking, 32 weeks is plenty of time to have formed a productive habit.  Plenty of time.  Despite this, I still cannot remember to start the backpack-emptying-routine before bedtime on Sunday night -- a time that's already fraught with increased chaos, diminished patience, and the distressing epiphany that my children may not have bathed for the past three days.

5) Take one picture of my children where every single person is looking at the camera.  And nobody is snarling, or elbowing someone, or making a strange gesture that resembles jazz hands.

Because, you know, something's got to fill that hand-painted wooden picture frame, right?



Happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there!

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Let's chat. It's time for a spring update.

Sometimes, it would be nice to sit down with you, my dear reader, so we could have a little chat.  I'd serve sweet tea, and together we could admire the gorgeous tree peonies that are blooming in my yard, even if we must look at them from inside because it's raining (again) today. 


Of course, our conversation would flit from topic to topic, as comfortable conversations are known to do, or simply because we're both too tired to sustain a singular coherent thought for too long.  There's so much to tell you, so let's chat!

Grading All The Things.  This time last week, I uploaded final grades for my four classes after grading final projects, final e-Portfolios, and final speeches.  It's always a sprint to the finish, but the kind of sprint that comes after you've already run a marathon, meaning that it's not very fast or pretty.  Nevertheless, the Spring 2017 semester is in the books, and I've been grateful for this gap week before I begin teaching my summer class on Monday.

Celebrating All the Things.  Within a span of less than two weeks, I've attended graduation as my department's Faculty Marshal, which thankfully is the only celebration that requires its celebrators to wear official academic regalia.  (To my knowledge, at least.  Maybe lots of other people regularly party while wearing a mortarboard.)  Additionally, we celebrated my husband's 40th birthday with a "40 Reason We Love You" scavenger hunt, and this week we're also celebrating two of my three daughters' birthdays.

Basically, this month we walk around our house declaring, "Let them eat cake!"


Cleaning All the Things.  Among other thrilling cleaning tasks, this week I scrubbed our kitchen cabinets with Murphy's Oil Soap and cleaned two kitchen drawers that hold our silverware and serving utensils, hand washing each piece.  I'd like to think that we're relatively tidy people, but these endeavors disabused that illusion. 

Planning All the Projects.  I've come to a realization: I need tasks in my life that look different when I finish them than when I started them.  Both teaching and parenting are rewarding, but when you reach the end of a day, nothing looks different.  (Well, perhaps with parenting things look different at the end of a day, if different means your house has imploded on itself with crumbs, toys, balled-up socks, school paperwork, and other various detritus of active children.)

This lack of visible progress at home and work sometimes wears on me.  I like seeing progress.  I'm a sucker for good before-and-after pictures, after all.  This is why I schedule time to work on projects each summer when my teaching load lessens -- projects I do with my hands, not only with my head.

This summer, for example, I'll tackle this mid-century modern cabinet that I snagged at a garage sale last year for $1.50.  It had been used to store vinyl records, hence the outline of musical notes on the cabinet doors.  Can't you envision new life being breathed into it with a fresh coat of paint and new hardware?


I tell you, this has the potential to generate a stunning before-and-after picture!  (If you have any color recommendations, drop me a comment!)

We Once Had This Tree.  We have a great view from the front porch of our house.  We can see the stadium, which is a campus hallmark, and we have a perfect showing of our town's 4th of July fireworks.  In the past few years there's been one problem, though.  A tree across the street has grown so large that it obscures our view.  My husband and I have joked about cutting it down, or staging an accident, or discretely hammering copper nails into its base to kill it.  Each time we have a storm, my husband prays that it would get struck by lightning.  Alas, it's never worked.

Until last week.  We didn't have just any storm; we had an epic storm that knocked out power for multiple sections of town for several days.  With the wind raging and rain pounding, Joel walked to our front window, looked at the tree, and prayed, "God, I'd love to see that knocked down."  Then, in his own words, he immediately thought, "That'll never happen."

Within seconds, though, a gust of wind surged, and right before his eyes the tree cracked in half and fell into the road.

Moral of the story: God is capable of answering our prayers even if we doubt.  Another moral of the story: God must like our view of the stadium and fireworks, too.


Cumulative Fatigue.  I once read a book about marathon running that discussed how runners should log enough mileage each week to have their legs reside in a state of cumulative fatigue.  Then, as runners taper with less mileage during the week leading up to the race, their legs will feel fresh again, leading to a better performance.

Even though I understand the logic behind this training method, I never could get past the phrase cumulative fatigue.  It sounds awful, doesn't it?

But cumulative fatigue is a phrase that I'd use to describe how I've been feeling.  I'm tired.  I've felt chronically tired for the past two months, in fact.  Each time I decide to schedule a doctor's appointment, I experience a day or two when I feel relatively normal.  (This is oddly similar to taking your car to the garage and having the suspicious clinking noise disappear when the mechanic listens to the engine, or scheduling a hair cut and having your hair, which intuitively feels the treat of scissors, behave more manageably than it has in weeks.)

I don't know whether my tiredness is due to actual illness, or general wear-and-tear, or mental exhaustion from making hundreds of decisions (see Grade All the Things above).  Perhaps I simply need some more sunshine, views of tree peonies, and the happy work of DIY projects to kick a little more energy into my days.   At any rate, I'm finally going to the doctor tomorrow.

Is your tea finished yet?  Would you like another glass? 

Granted, I've monopolized this conversation, but I'm so glad we could chat today.  Drop me a line if you have anything pressing to share, like a fallen tree, or whether your family also experiences clusters of birthday celebrations, or whether you've ever dealt with cumulative fatigue.  I'm all ears!

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Monday, May 1, 2017

A Few Needed Hours at a Campsite

Sometimes, you don't know know what you need, but then you get it, and it dawns that this thing is exactly what you had wanted all along.  This happened on Saturday.  I had taught my final classes of the semester on Friday, and given that my students wouldn't submit final projects until Monday, I had no other grading to finish over the weekend.  For the first time in weeks, I had a moment to breathe.

It feels good to breathe.

In this state of exhaling, we spent a few hours with friends at their campsite on Saturday.  We grilled chicken over the fire and toasted s'mores. 


We walked along the Little Juniata River and watched a fly fisherman cast his line.


All this time as I caught up with friends, ate chicken, licked marshmallow off my fingers, and wondered if the fisherman would get a good catch, in the back of my mind I thought: At this moment, I have room to breathe.  At this moment, I don't feel like I need to be doing anything else.

It's wonderful to feel like you shouldn't be doing anything else, like nothing else is hanging over your head.

I needed that.  I really, really needed that.

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