Staring at Nothing in Particular

I've recently found myself walking into rooms in my house and just staring. Staring at what, you ask? Most often, nothing in particular. I'd open the pantry and stare, wondering why there was a canister of oatmeal and a bag of egg noodles on the same shelf where we stored our batteries, super glue, and a bin of assorted pens.

I'm generally an organized person, but this didn't make sense. I didn't have energy to make it make sense, either, so I'd just stare. Occasionally, I'd deliberate if the partially used bag of marshmallows leftover from a summer campfire should be thrown out, or if I should buy Rice Crispies to make Rice Crispie treats. But then would I end up with a partially used box of Rice Crispies? Would I ever get the ratio of cereal-to-marshmallows exactly right, or would I always have some annoyingly small about of one or the other left over?

I'd shut the pantry. 

The weeks leading up to Thanksgiving are a slog, work-wise, and I feel the effect of this cumulative fatigue at moments like this when Rice Crispie treat contemplation is too much to manage. 

Over the past 13 weeks I've spent so much time sifting student work through criteria. It's constant weighing, considering, and evaluating, My last task was reading a batch of 75 student topic proposals. This takes about 6 or 7 focused hours, plus break times where I stand to stretch, change the laundry from the washer into the dryer, or open a closet and stare, wondering vaguely if I should upgrade my hangers.

I suspect that I think more carefully about my students' topic ideas than they do. This isn't for true all students, but it seems to be true for some. During these points, I stare out the window into my yard contemplating all of my life choices. 

Once I finished commenting on the final proposal, I shut my laptop and put it aside so I wouldn't see it. Out of sight, out of mind.

Then I let myself fully sink into Thanksgiving break, and great things happened. 

I watched a movie and read a book. I put away fall decorations and put out Christmas decorations. I went through the pantry to organize all the contents, then the closet, then the bookshelves. Joel joined the action. Together we sorted, tossing unneeded boxes from old phones, random cords that had no discernable purpose, and obsolete paperwork. We spent hours raking leaves and working in the yard.

I realized that I hadn't been tired of working; I had been tired of thinking

You might be pleased to know that our oatmeal is no longer stored beside our batteries. In fact, I'm so happy with my newly organized pantry and closet that I keep inventing reasons to open them, just to appreciatively gaze at their sensible arrangement.

Life makes more sense when you take a break from thinking so you can think about other things. 

Get Just One Thing In Order

I love watching trees turn colors in the fall. Technically, of course, these changes mean that the leaves are about to flutter en masse to their crunchy deaths, but golly, it's a beautiful process to behold.  

Yesterday I devoted hours to these leaves. I blew them. I raked them. I repeatedly dragged piles of them on a tarp to the curb so when the township's leaf-sucking truck drives by, we'll be ready. More leaves kept falling while I worked, which somehow felt like celebration (look, it's confetti!) and mockery (look, you'll never finish this task!) all at once.

When I finished the blowing, raking, and tarp-dragging, I entered a final stage of leaf-conquering by cutting the grass, which ground up and mulched leaves that I had missed with the first steps.

After a few hours, I had a pretty substantial pile.

While this yard work was definitely work, it felt therapeutic. Unlike my day job, this type of work gives space for my mind to wander. I immediately see progress, with distinctly satisfying "before" and "after" changes. On top of that, after a stretch of rainy weekends, the weather was perfect -- crisp and dry with sunshine, not damp and dreary or overly cold. 

Each time I upended the tarp to shake more leaves into the larger pile, my eyes took in the scene. I drank in the sights like I was trying to commit them to memory before November settles in earnest and eventually all remaining colors mute into winter's grays and browns.

Once I finished and rolled the lawnmower back into its space in the shed, I slowly paced the yard to inspect my work: the turned-over garden, the cut-back plants, the orderly grass with its perfect lines from the mower. 

It was so pretty. I was so happy.

The leaves kept falling, but now they were landing on ground that already was in order. It was like when my children were little and the difference between when they dumped out a bucket of Legos on a messy floor that needed to be vacuumed, versus when they dumped out a bucket of Legos on a freshly-vacuumed floor.

Somehow, it makes a difference. A mess on top of another mess can feel like too many messes to handle.

Sometimes, you need to get just one thing in order, then everything else feels better. Yesterday, for me, that one thing was these leaves.


When Weird Dreams Feel Weirdly Real

Last night I dreamed that I had been signed up to compete in a 32 mile swim. From the get-go, you'd think I'd question this, but Dream Robin accepted the assignment with minimal examination. Other swimmers showed up to the event wearing streamlined wetsuits. I wore jeans. I also wore only one shoe. Naturally.

Did I show any concern that my jeans would be heavy when submersed in water, making them a highly unsuitable clothing choice to swim 32 miles? No. Did I wonder why I had only one shoe? No. Did I at least have a sensible backstory to explain where I lost the other shoe? Also no. Despite this shocking lack of awareness, while I was standing on the bank of the nameless river waiting for my turn to jump in and start swimming, I do recall being quite upset that I didn't have a pair of goggles. I asked the swimmer beside me if there was a Wal-Mart nearby where I could buy a pair of those plastic mask goggles that cover your nose and leave an oval imprint on your face when you lift them up to clear out the fogginess. They shook their head, then looked away from me without a word.

I don't blame this dream person. I wouldn't know how to converse with me in this situation, either.

I'm not a great swimmer in real life. Technically, I'm safe enough to not drown in the deep end of a pool, but nobody's going to confuse me with a skilled open-ocean swimmer. Yet somehow, Dream Robin didn't seem daunted by this 32-mile challenge, even though I hadn't trained and only found out about the race that morning. 

In the ways that dreams morph without explanation and refuse to adhere to either reality or physics, the river ran up a mountain and then shifted into a muddy creek where the water only came to my waist. I waded this section with my arms aloft, somehow now hoisting a military bag above my head to keep it out of the water. At one point during the race, I had to float feet-first through rapids. At another point, I was required to get out of the water, hike a steep section of the Appalachian Trail, then restart swimming in the Pacific Ocean. (Geography doesn't matter in dreams, either.)

I was still in the water when my alarm went off. It's weird when you wake up tired because you were swimming all night. 

Perhaps there's some symbolism buried in this dream that pertains to my life right now. Maybe it's a strange parable about steadfastness when the waters are murky, or perseverance when the tides want to pull you under, or grit in the face of adversity, or the simple truth that progress comes with every step (or every stroke), no matter how small or tough.

Or maybe, it's just a reminder to make sure I'm wearing both shoes before I leave the house.


I Almost Canned Stuff (and other reports from September)

Today I flipped the calendar to October, which is a particularly satisfying calendar flip. September hints at the promise of fall, but October delivers on the promise.

Right now, in fact, I'm sitting on my front porch, still reflecting on the message from church this morning. The faint breeze makes me grateful for my cardigan, and the orange-tinged tips of trees make everything feel cozy and right. I agree with Anne of Green Gables: "I'm so glad that I live in a world where there are Octobers."

We've been on a roll the past few weeks. I've taught my classes, which are going well. We've rented our house for home football weekends, which has required extensive cleaning (satisfying) and extensive laundry (necessary). In waves and spurts, I've embarked on organizing kicks: going through our closet, cleaning out a pantry, and sorting a medicine cabinet. I've capitalized on the beautiful days tucked between rainy stretches to cut the grass, start the process of putting the gardens to sleep, and spray paint DIY projects in the driveway before it gets too cold.

I've also picked pears. A few years ago, Joel planted a pear tree in our back yard. This is the first year that it's produced an actual harvest. Somehow, I'm always shocked when things grow, when this process of fruit and vegetable "production" actually works. I don't know why I'd expect differently, but when I pick apples from my apple trees and pears from my pear tree, it's always with a sense of wonder tinged with disbelief. 

We grew stuff. How did this even happen?

This leads me to two weeks ago when I gathered all the large bowls and baskets from my house and carried them, along with a picker resembling a lacrosse stick that I borrowed from my neighbor, to the far side of my yard. This same neighbor also had loaned me a few dozen Ball mason jars and lids, along with verbal instructions on the sugar-to-water ratio for simple syrup that sounded easy enough even though I knew I'd never remember it. As she sent me on my way, I could tell she had great hopes I'd become a person who cans fruit.

And I tried. Well, I sort of tried.

I picked lots of pears. I filled bowls and baskets with them. I carried them into our kitchen, rinsed and patted them dry, then inspected for soft spots. This was on a Thursday. We were renting our house the next day, so it didn't seem like an opportune time for a first venture into the canning process. I relocated everything to the garage, trusting I'd pick up where I left off once we returned to the house on Sunday.

Sunday came and went, filled with church, post-rental cleaning and laundry, a trip to the grocery store, and who-knows-what-else. Monday came and went, too. As did several other days. 

When I finally went to check on my pears, thinking that I'd bring the bowls, baskets, and mason jars back into the kitchen, that I'd finally commit the recipe for simple syrup to my memory, that I'd boil and seal jars to my heart's content, I had one thought:

I don't even buy canned pears from the grocery store.

I mean, I like pears well enough, I guess. But I've never actually sought them out in canned form. Not once have I entertained a hankering for canned pears so deeply that I've needed to get to the store right away to satisfy that craving. 

As I stood there with my illusions of homesteading crashing to the ground around me, I thought, "Yeah, no. I'm good."

I've eaten the pears with my lunches, shared them with neighbors, and made a pear tart. These assorted uses seem even nicer than canning them.

Who knows? Maybe I'll eventually be a person who cans. Maybe October is my month. Or maybe I'll return the fruit picker and the clinking, empty mason jars back to my neighbor with a shrug of my shoulders. I'll hand over a few ripe, uncanned pears as an offering of apology.

So, yeah. I almost canned stuff. Somehow that feels enough.


Beyond Measure: Post Talk Update

The weekend before the semester began, I had the pleasure of speaking at a women's event about rooting our worth in what matters. It was a wonderful evening with women from over 25 churches in attendance, which always warms my heart.

Within the first few minutes of talking, two things happened simultaneously: 

(1) I realized that I need to commit to having my reading glasses with me at all times. I no longer can easily read without them, and I didn't consider this middle-aged reality until I already was on stage with notes that now, apparently, were scrawled in hieroglyphics.

(2) I had a clicker so I could advance the slides while I was speaking. One of the awesome tech people did not know this, however, and she also had a clicker so she could advance my slides while I was speaking. This made me briefly question my sanity. How are my slides moving when I'm not clicking them? Is my vision really that bad? What is happening?

These are real thoughts I think while I'm on a stage and other, entirely different words are coming out of my mouth. It's kind of impressive. At any rate, the slides don't appear in the video, so you'll have to trust me that they not only were awesome, but also well timed.

You can view the talk here. I hope that it encourages you today! My dear friends, remember this: you are loved beyond measure.


"Did you pack an umbrella?" And Other Things Parents Say When Dropping Off a Child at Their Dorm

When I count all my years of education, including both my years as a student and my years teaching, I've completed 40 first days of school. I've endured this rigamarole 40 times. FORTY TIMES. Four-zero.

Forty is a lot of first days of school. Back in the day, I was just a kid learning my teachers' names, figuring out my class schedule, and hoping I had friends during my lunch period. Now, I'm just a middle-aged Associate Teaching Professor who learns my students' names, figures out my class schedule, and is happy to eat my lunch by myself, quietly, in between classes, perhaps while sitting on a bench under a nice tree on campus. I come home to hear about how my own kids navigated their own first days.

This year's back-to-school routine feels more poignant than ever before. You see, last week we moved our oldest daughter into her dorm. I've been teaching college students for 18 years. Now it's finally happened: I'm the parent of a college student. As I write, she's nearly one full week into her college experience.

She's grown up in this university town of ours, and the fact that she's now attending college here is fraught with its own complexities. Not everything is new to her, which is good and bad. While there's comfort in familiarity, there's also concern that college will merely feel like 13th grade, that it will be too familiar, too close, too been there, even if she hasn't done that.

That's why we felt it was important for her to live in a dorm. Of course, the dorm is a mere 3.1 miles from our house and her room is the size of a Wheat Thin, but it's her own Wheat Thin and it's away from us.

What an experience for her — and for all 8,000 new first-year students at our university. They're paired with a stranger who becomes a roommate, and they're now working through the nuances that happen when two people with different personalities, schedules, preferences, and idiosyncrasies suddenly share a tight living space.

As I carried plastic bins of my daughter's earthly possessions into her dorm, I considered how this exact process was unfolding with thousands of others: rolling carts and stacks of clothes, desk lamps and extra long fitted sheets, Command-hooked twinkle lights and posters for the cinderblock walls, school supplies and four-by-six area rugs to make the room a little more soft and homey, a little less sterile and impersonal.

I overheard snippets of conversation, snippets that likely have been and will be repeated again and again through the millennia of parents dropping off their kids at college: "I told you that you should have taken an upright laundry basket, not that big one," and "At least your dorm is close to the dining hall," and "Your roommate seems nice," and "Did you pack an umbrella? I don't think we remembered to pack an umbrella."

Underneath these obvious remarks about the new surroundings, and the inconsequential commentary on what items were forgotten at home, lies the deeper sentiments:

Please make good choices.

I love you.

I'm excited for you, and I'm a bit nervous, too.

I already miss you. This is one of those important markers signifying that life will never quite be the same again.

Even though my daughter is still so close, I know how this story goes — or, at least, how we've been planning and preparing for this story to go for the past 18 years. We raise our kids so they can leave us. We raise them so they step foot into this vast world on their own, even if they might call to ask questions about laundry. We raise them so they will venture out with confidence and competence and a good head on their shoulders.

This process somehow feels unequivocally set into motion when you first drop them off in their dorm room while pestering them with inane comments about umbrellas.

Thirteen years ago when she started kindergarten, we had a newborn and a two year old at home. Those were wonderful, harried, glorious, exhausting days. My husband and I both worked full time, so we alternated our hours on campus and our hours at home. It was an era of constant juggling, a season of swapping cars and car seats. We somehow made it work, though I'm not quite sure how.

One particularly tiring afternoon, I made a chart in the back of a notebook. In each row, I listed a year and what age the kids would be during that year. Three rows down, it signified three years later when our middle child would start kindergarten. Five rows down, the chart signaled that the youngest would join the ranks of school-attenders.

That afternoon, when I was nursing a baby, and playing with a toddler, and grading assignments, and trying to figure how I was going to mobilize everyone to the bus stop to pick up the kindergartener while maintaining nap times, I believed that the next five years would span eons. It would be an eternity until my kids were all in school, until I had a moment of breathing room, until my days opened up again.

And it was. And it wasn't. Those five years somehow were both fast and slow, rushed and drawn out, blink-and-you'll-miss-it quick and painstaking long all at once. 

That's why I know something now that I didn't know then: when our oldest hits a new milestone, it's both feels both forever and immediate until our youngest hits that milestone. Then, it was entering kindergarten. Now, it's entering college.

We're dipping our toes into an entirely new stage of parenting.

So, as we made trips from our van, up the elevator, and into our daughter's dorm with our arms full of her shower caddy for toiletries and granola bars for snacks, it felt familiar and different all at once. She might still be close, but this is a significant step. And since I didn't quite know what else to say when I hugged her goodbye and drove the short distance home, I said what I could:

I love you with my whole heart.

I'm so proud of you.

Did you pack an umbrella?


Let's Chat: August: The February of Summer

People. I am not sure where the last month went. This is unnerving because I was with myself the entire time, but I'm finding it hard to give an account for everything that went down during the month of July. It's time for an official Sit and Chat post to get reacclimated.

The Slower Pace of Summer. In July, I take off from teaching and days have a way of blurring into one another. Things happen -- my family visits, I hold my annual yard sale, I work in the yard, I tackle house projects that I had been putting off -- but they happen at a slower pace. I wish that I could tuck a few of these summer days into my back pocket and pull one out when I'm in the thick of the semester in need of some leisure, but alas, life doesn't work that way. I'm trying to savor it all now.

Zucchini All the Time. We've hit the point when my garden is exploding. Right now, my cilantro and basil are thriving, and we're eating zucchini, in one form or another, nearly every day.

A New Stage of Life. I already have a gut feeling that August will move quickly. August is the February of summer -- the month when we're most apt to be tired of the current season, ready for the next season, but still not there yet. In a few weeks I'll start my 19th year of university teaching and our oldest daughter will start her first semester of college. We'll begin to get oriented to life with two kids, not three, at home. I haven't wrapped my mind around this yet.

The Annual Weekend. Each August for the last decade, my dear friend and I plan a weekend to get together at her house in Morgantown, West Virginia. It's total indulgence: we talk for hours, take hikes, watch movies, and order take-out. Sometimes we go shopping. Other years we've done something exciting, like zip-lining or (attempted) water-skiing. I'm actually headed to visit her now, and I'm actively composing a mental list of all the topics we urgently need to discuss, and a list of all the topics we leisurely need to discuss, and I'm already thrilled about all the topics we won't even plan in advance but will still discuss.

There's so much to be said for good friends. Thank God for people who know you the best and love you the best.

As my life falls into more routine, as it's apt to do in the fall, I'll be more present here on the blog. Thank you for sitting and chatting today!


Don't Resist What Actually Refreshes

Our family just spent a week at the beach in Virginia,. The weather's been hot, but not muggy, and the ocean's been cold, but not frigid. A perfect combination. 

Each day I've sat on the beach reading from the stack of books I brought. Each day I've waited until I was thoroughly hot so I'd be ready to take the plunge into the ocean. Each day I've stood at the water's edge and sucked in my breath when the waves first hit my feet, then my shins, then my thighs. Each day I've reasoned with myself, "Robin, you're hot. The water's refreshing. Just get in the water. Just take the plunge."

But it was just yesterday that I noticed the irrationality of this process: I'm hot. The water's refreshing. And yet, I hesitate to enter. I balk at the exact thing that's going to help just because it shocks my system for a moment.

I felt the gentle nudge of God as I considered this. It wasn't just about the ocean. There are many times when I know exactly what I need—sleep instead of caffeine, time genuinely connecting with a friend instead of scrolling on my phone, running to the Lord in prayer instead of numbing myself with distraction—but I stand at the edge, slow to take the plunge because I perceive it'll be a shock to my system for a moment. In the process, I'm depriving myself of the one thing that will offer real refreshment.

So today I just got in the water. And, as expected, it was glorious. Why would I ever delay such goodness?

Let's not resist what actually refreshes.

But As For Me

Right now, Canada is on fire. Although it's hundreds of miles away from where I'm sitting on my front porch in central Pennsylvania, our skies loom heavily, nearly dripping with languid haze, making me want to blink hard or wave my hand in front of my face, in hopes to clear my vision and swipe away the fog.

Amazing how something so far away can still hit close to home.

The other day I was reading from Micah, a book in the Bible I rarely visit. I was struck by a statement in chapter 7:

But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord.
I wait for God my Savior;
my God will hear me.

What a powerful declaration. I focus on the boldness of the opening words: "But as for me." These are the types of words that drive a stake in the ground, the types of words that draw a line in the sand. 

No matter what others do, no matter what comes my way, no matter how I feel, no matter what things look like, I will do this: I will watch in hope for the Lord.

Right now, I'm watching in hope for the Lord in regards to many things. To be honest, I feel like I'm watching for God through a haze. On the surface, I don't visibly see Him at work in the circumstances. Nothing seems quite clear. I want to blink and have the situation look less obscured. I want to swipe my hand in front of my face, like I'm brushing away the blur, and have something visibly shift with my surroundings.

But, like Micah, I also wait.

I wait in the midst of these unclear situations, knowing that God, my Savior, hears me. 


If You Don't Stop and Look Around

I don't always quote iconic 80's movies, but today I'm remembering a particular scene in Ferris Bueller when he offered this wise advice:

Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

This advice seems apt right now. You see, the month of May is a bit crazy. It's crazy because the kid's school year is dying down, and by dying down I mean amping up with a dozen-or-so end-of-year celebrations ranging from final track meets, to final choir concerts, to prom, to awards ceremonies, to emails from teachers with Sign-Up Genius links to bring in something for some class party / event / thing. 

In our household, May also is a month of birthdays. We celebrate three birthdays over a span of eleven days. There's cake, then more cake, and then more cake after that. This May, specifically, marked the threshold where our youngest turned 13, so Joel and I are officially parents of all teenagers. We feel this.

To keep May hopping, I finished spring teaching, took a week's pause after finals week to prepare our house to rent it for graduation weekend (which requires cleaning the house to the point that it looks like we no longer live in it), and then started summer teaching, which runs at an accelerated pace so we can cover fifteen weeks of content in six weeks.

This, I have discovered, is just the nature of May. It moves pretty fast.

But there's today. Today has been a slow day, a heart-stopping beautiful day when the weather must be a precursor of the climate in heaven. The grass is cut and the peonies are in full bloom. The breeze carries sounds of kids playing down the street. Chores are done. There's no immediate work to attend to. 

It's peaceful and calm, slow and savored. It's a gift that I don't take for granted. Even as I write from my back porch, I linger between sentences to let my gaze wander. If I don't stop and look around, I'm going to miss it.

I don't want to miss it.

I'm trying to do the same during this season of life. Our oldest daughter graduates high school next week. Someone with younger children recently asked me how this feels. She's attending college close to home, which helps to mitigate some of the feelings that parents must feel when their child moves far away, but I still have feelings.

There's joy, of course. She's worked so hard, grown so much, and she's ready for the next step. There's surprise. I mean, people tell you that 18 years go fast, but when you actually measure the span from newborn to emerging adult with a milestone one evening where they wear a cap and gown, you realize that those people were right. It goes fast in the way that 18 years can go fast -- which is not at all, and entirely so, all at once.

Of course, the feelings wouldn't be complete without the loving concern about all the next steps and challenges: adjusting to college living, working through inevitable moments of frustration when living with a roommate in a dorm room the size of a Wheat Thin, making decisions about the future. When my thoughts wander, I find them circling over the same themes:

Have I taught her enough? Have I shared what I want her to know deep in her core about how much we love her, and how valuable she is, and how she can trust God with every single one of these steps into adulthood?

I hope so. I really hope so.

There's also sadness intermingled with such joy that it's impossible to separate one from the other. My face gets confused with all the signals from my brain and heart. My mouth smiles and my eyes cry because it's all true: this person I loved before I laid eyes on her, this baby I carried, this toddler I hoisted on my hip, this kindergartener who wore a backpack nearly the size of her body, this elementary school child who learned to read and ride a bike and master the monkey bars on the playground, this middle schooler who threatened my sanity, this high schooler who passed a driver's test, had her first fender-bender, competed in hurdles, gave presentations, took AP tests, stayed up late doing homework, and came home late after hanging out with friends, this young woman who's lived her life with some high highs alongside some inevitably low lows, is taking her first steps out the door.

So, how do I feel?

There aren't enough words. I feel it all. It's joyful and surreal. It's good, and sweet, and aching. It's a reminder that life moves fast, and that it's important to look around, to feel these feelings deeply, to let myself smile and laugh and cry.

I don't want to miss any of this.


The Start of May

Ah, May has arrived. I like the month of May. I like that the semester ends. I like that peonies bloom, that I can smell lilac in the breeze, and that the world comes alive. I like that I get to start cutting the grass, that we mulch our flower beds, and that living spaces spill over onto back patios and front porches. 

With all that said, that's currently not what May feels like. It's 40 degrees outside. It's also wet. A will-anything-ever-feel-dry-again? wetness. There have been multiple daily torrential downpours, intermingled with slow stretches of lackluster rain, punctuated by moments of hail.

Welcome to May.

If I had my druthers, the start of May would be vibrant and sunny, fresh and fun, comfortable and carefree. But, as we all know, we don't control the weather. 

There's so much we don't get to control. I recently was talking with a friend who's facing some serious challenges in her personal life. I understood. Same here. Even though the particulars of our circumstances are different, she and I share a similar bottom line: we both have chapters in our lives that we hadn't envisioned and wouldn't have chosen for ourselves.

This is universally human. We wouldn't have chosen illnesses and cancer diagnosis. We wouldn't have chosen hardships in marriage. We wouldn't have chosen infertility or miscarriages, heartbreaks and bullying, wayward children or job termination, addictions or anxiety disorders, house fires or losing loved ones too soon. We've all lived life events we never would have written into our own stories willfully, but those stories have come nonetheless.

If we had our druthers, things would be more vibrant and sunny, fresh and fun, comfortable and carefree. But, as well all know, we don't get to control all the twists and turns of life.

So today, on this second day of May, I accept the blustery temperature, the rain squalls, and the cloud coverage. I'll work inside and choose contentment, rather than lamenting that I can't work outside. I'll steal a moment to sit and read, curled up under a blanket on my couch, instead of in the wishing I was reading on my porch with my sunglasses on. I'll remember that these few rainy, cold days in May are temporary. It's not going to stay this cold and damp forever.

That's the same with life. When we face hard times, they feel immersive, as if there's 100% circumstantial cloud coverage. But hard times don't last forever. I love this advice from Kristina Kuzmic:

So here's a tip: add right now to whatever is frustrating you about parenting or life in general so that you're not putting a permanence on it. You're realizing that whatever is difficult right now doesn't have to be difficult forever. So, for example, 'I'm not getting enough sleep right now. My toddler is throwing daily tantrums right now. My teenager acts like he hates me right now. This divorce is so excruciatingly painful right now.'

This is right now. This is not forever. You are not stuck. A bad year or two or five doesn't equal a bad life. It equals a bad year or two or five. Hard parenting days won't last forever. Hard life days aren't permanent either.

It's not permanent. It's right now."

Sure, the start of May has been wet and cold. But it's not permanent. It's just right now.


If You Have Something Nice to Say

This past weekend at church, I sat a few rows behind a friendly married couple that we've known, at least on an acquaintance level, for years. Their adult daughter and son-in-law arrived a few minutes later and sat beside them. I loved the greeting that ensued: warm hugs, the mom rubbing her daughter's back, huge smiles. Such tangible displays of affection.

I've noticed this about this family before. They love each other. They like each other. It shows.

On the back of my bulletin, I scrawled a little note to my husband, "The bond between members of that family always warms my heart. So evident how much love there is!"

He read it and nodded. He had noticed, too.

After service, I waited for the woman and handed her the note, telling her, "I just wanted you to see your family how others see you."

Then I went on with my day. Honestly, I didn't think of the encounter again until I noticed that she had tagged me on Facebook with a picture of my messily written note and this message: 

A sweet friend handed this to me on our way out of church. It’s probably the nicest thing anyone has ever said about our family. So appreciated. Made my year!!!

My heart! Do you know how simple it was for me to pass this note to her? It was such a small thing! And yet, it clearly was meaningful to her.

We all know the adage, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." But this small encounter reminds me that the opposite corollary might be equally important: If we have something nice to say, say it.

We think nice things about people all the time. Once again, I'm reminded that it never hurts to say it.

On Having a Favorite Tree

I'm going to go ahead and state the obvious: I used to be young, and now I have a favorite tree. I get weirdly excited about this particular tree, you see. It's along a road leading to the elementary school my children used to attend. You can pass this tree all winter long and not notice it. You can drive by it all summer without a glace.

But in spring, you notice this tree. You gawk at this tree. You want to let out a low whistle of appreciation for this tree. You annoy your pre-teen (who, for the record, is too pre-teen-y to find it cool to have a favorite tree, although she'll concede that this one is nice) by making her open her window and use your phone to take a picture while you drive by at a snail's pace. 

This tree deserves being noticed. This tree deserves being captured when its in full bloom.

* * *
On Tuesdays I don't go onto campus. Instead, like a throwback to Covid days, I work from home. I grade assignments from my kitchen table, still wearing the exercise clothes from my morning visit to the gym. To break up working, I do other types of work: starting and folding a load of laundry, collecting trash from all the bins and rolling the trash cans to the curb, making sure we have all the groceries needed for the remaining meals this week. These household tasks serve as a buffer, a needed break of doing something productive with my hands instead of my mind. Then it's back to actual work at the kitchen table.

Today, however, I wanted to take a little detour outside of the house. I drove to visit the tree like I'd visit an old friend. It's a mere 10-minute round trip loop from home to the tree and back again, but I took a few extra moments to park my car on an adjacent road, walk toward the tree, and savor the view.

These blossoms don't last long, you know. My eyes wandered from the trunk to the knobby, strong, sprawling limbs. I noticed how the breeze caused the faintest rise and fall of branches, like the tree was shyly waving in greeting. I wondered if this tree is one of the homeowner's most prized possessions, a treasure akin to Jim's watch or Della's hair in O. Henry's Gift of the Magi, something they'd never brag about, but take great pride in owning. We're the people with the tree, I imagine them saying.

Of course, I have to move on. My work from the kitchen table calls, but this detour was just what I needed today.



Just Start

It's inevitable. Each semester I reach a point when it feels like I have grading to complete all the time. And when I say it feels like "all the time," I mean All. The. Time. In perpetuity. Unceasing. Continual. Never ending. Forever and ever and ever, amen.

Last night, I actually dreamed that I was providing feedback for students on an assignment. I was terribly disappointed when I woke up because, apparently, grading completed during a dream doesn't actually count for anything. Come on, man! I worked all night long but have nothing to show for it.

I'm tired. Assignments pour in like a deluge. Yesterday's to-do list bled into today. I suspect today's to-do list will bleed until tomorrow. My shoulders are tense, my brow is furrowed, and my resolve is weakening. I want to either (a) take a nap so I can temporarily forget about the grading, or (b) clean all my closets so I can temporarily convince myself I'm being productive, even if it's not productive in the right way.

I've been in this place before. I'm no stranger to a semester's cumulative fatigue. Grading is time consuming and laborious, yet it's an essential part of my job that I take seriously. Still, it's hard right now.

Even so, I do one entirely unglamorous thing that always helps: I start.

I just start.

I don't need to grade all the assignments tonight. I don't need to complete them all tomorrow, either. Right now, I simply need to start and grade one. Then I start again, and I grade one more. Then one more. Like putting one foot ahead of another, eventually I'll cover some distance.

I'll likely succumb at some point over these next few days and take that nap. It'll be a healthy coping mechanism. I've already organized my pantry. (That was yesterday's diversion, and yes, if you're wondering, it was wildly satisfying up until the point when I conceded to myself that having my spices perfectly lined up wasn't actually my most pressing task.)

Even so, regardless of how many diversions might crop up, I keep reminding myself to start. 

Just start.


Re-Entry into Real Life

Two weeks ago I wrote about our spring break travels. It was a lovely trip: sunshine and sand, leisure time to read books and take walks, and evenings whiled away with card games.

Then we came home. If I'm honest, I get foggy on the details of how the trip ended. In the span of two days, there was a terrifically long drive home. (Hours 12-14 of a family road trip in a minivan are obviously everyone's favorite.)

Upon arrival home, we unpacked, did a dozen-or-so loads of laundry, and took a trip to the grocery store to restock. As a bonus, we added in Daylight Savings and lost an hour of sleep.

When I returned to work Monday morning, with just a hint of a tan on my cheeks as visible evidence of my travels, it was a shock. In fact, that whole week felt like a shock, as if had pulled out of my driveway and suddenly was moving 70 miles per hour.

Looking back, I'm not sure where the week went. I must have gone to work and the kids must have gone to school. I must have taught and graded, and I must have cooked meals and cleaned up. I'm guessing that things moved along normally; at least, I don't recall otherwise.

There's always a re-entry period back into real life. Days that pass without much aplomb, without much to show for them, except for a crossed off block on a calendar. And that's okay. Buffer days and buffer weeks sometimes happen.

Now I'm back to real life, pleased for the extra hour of sunlight each day, and used to the rhythms of work and schedules again. Even so, I'm grateful for times of vacation — those days where we quite literally vacate our regular roles and typical routines  — even if the re-entry into real life takes some time.


Live Oaks and Blooming Azaleas


I was in sixth grade the first time I traveled without my family. I had qualified for the national Academic Games competition in Georgia. In case this feat sounds even remotely impressive, let me immediately disabuse you of such illusions. I was twelve, and in my spare time I studied uncommon trivia about the presidents. (Dolly Madison, our nation's fourth First Lady, made her own lipstick, you know).

This national competition was held at a camp an hour outside Atlanta. We slept in cabins: one side with bunks for the boys, another side for the girls, and a small buffer room in between for the two brave and likely under-compensated teachers who chaperoned our full cohort — a dozen or so kids from our Pittsburgh middle school who qualified to compete with other kids from around central and eastern United States in games with thrilling names like Equations, Linguistics, and Presidents.

At the end of the week, there was a dance held in the dining hall. I don't want to unearth memories too deeply here, but I'm pretty positive I wore a baggy tee shirt and overalls with one side of the bib hanging loose, which clearly was the best style to pair with my singular dance move, the running man. My bangs were styled with a one-inch barrel curling iron, my lips were glossy with Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers, and my eyes were bright with mascara I had borrowed from a seventh grader in the cabin.

That embarrassment aside, this trip captured something within me. I never had traveled far from my Pittsburgh home before this trip, and in one fell swoop, I — a twelve-year-old who knew that James Buchanan was the only president who never married — fell in love with Georgia.

I'm not sure what sealed the romance. Maybe it was the red Georgia dirt and mulched pine needles, or live oaks and blooming azaleas, or sweet tea and billboards for truck stops that sold salty boiled peanuts. Maybe it was graceful swags of Spanish moss and slapping my legs to ward off chiggers instead of typical Pennsylvania mosquitos. Maybe it was the first taste of how travel offered new insights and freedoms, even if I was chaperoned and transported by school busses without air conditioning.

Georgia, somehow, became special to me. Over three decades later, Georgia still feels special.

Since it's spring break at Penn State, our family recently made its way south, passing through Georgia on our way to northern Florida for the week. We stopped in Savannah for an afternoon, and once again, the southern charm, deep and still and somehow ageless, spoke to me.

Many life events have transpired since I first laid eyes on Georgia: high school and college, grad school and marriage, homeownership and parenthood, to name a few. Tomorrow, in fact, I celebrate my 45th birthday. Even with this passage of time, I haven't forgot that my first magical associations with the south started when I was twelve.

Back then, you see, I wasn't just a kid who knew which president gave the longest inaugural address, but also a person who, when exposed to an entirely new place on this earth, felt acute wonder that dirt could be red and oaks could be evergreen.


Creating a DIY Hymn Board

I recently found inspiration from Katie at Little House of Four, a blog teeming with gorgeous vintage decorating and upcycling ideas. She once found an outdated wooden calendar and transformed it into an antique hymn board. I knew I could duplicate something similar when I found a calendar on clearance for 39 cents at my own Goodwill. 

When my husband saw it, he gave a ringing endorsement: "That is ugly." I couldn't argue him on that point; he was entirely right. I just knew it wouldn't stay ugly for long.

Here's the pared-down process I used:

1) Remove the wooden house with a hammer and chisel.

2) Remove the ledges and thoroughly sand the entire surface.

3) Fill screw holes with stainable wood filler, then sand again.

4) Stain the prepared wood. I used Minwax Mission Oak.

5) Reattach the ledges at your chosen heights.

6) Add any desired decorative elements. To fill in some of the empty spaces, I found these wooden appliques from Hobby Lobby and stained them to match.

7) Add numbers or letters to the ledges. Katie from Little House of Four used authentic vintage hymn numbers, which looks amazing. I chose to print letters that I trimmed to size and coated with matte Mod Podge for durability and a slightly aged appearance.

8) Hang and enjoy!

In the coming months and seasons, I plan to print additional letters to spell different words. (I'm thinking "He is risen!" for Easter, and "Noel" or "Merry" for Christmas.) Right now, though, I'm enjoying this visual reminder to abide in Christ.

I'm pleased that an outdated 39 cent wooden calendar could be given new life and a new purpose. Let me know what you think of the transformation!


Mission Accomplished: 30 for 30 (minus 2)

This is it. It's the final day of February. At the start of the month, I set a goal to write here daily. This initially felt ambitious, but the self-imposed challenge kickstarted good things within me, things that had been lying dormant for a while. 

If you're familiar with Robin Kramer Writes, you know that I rarely stick to one topic. This month was no exception. I wrote about stacking wins, encouraging words, procrastination, and middle school basketball games. I commented on the weather, taking small detours, and the Lord's steadfastness. Inexplicably, I wrote a surprising number of posts including animals: the happiest squirrel on campus, some baby ducks, a stuffed monkey with a missing arm, and our newly adopted cat, Chip. Perhaps my favorite two posts of the month documented a seemingly easy house project that went wrong -- and then against all odds, escalated into even more face-palming hilarity.

In a nutshell, February has yielded 28 posts about messy, mundane, and glorious everydayness. To close the month, I'd like to ask something of you, if you're willing: 

I'm issuing an official invitation to un-lurk
. If you're a regular reader — hey, even if you're an occasional or brand-new reader — would you leave a comment to introduce yourself? I speak with sincerity: I'm delighted when a reader interacts, and I'd love to hear from you. You could do this on my Robin Kramer Writes Facebook page, or by clicking the comment button at the bottom of this post.

If you've missed any days along the way, feel free to review the full listing of February 2023 posts. Three cheers for archival accuracy!

Day 01: The February Challenge: 30 for 30 (Minus 2)

Day 02: Chronic Soul Amnesia

Day 03: College Kids These Days
Day 04: Crying at Middle School Basketball Games
Day 05: Just a Hint
Day 06: Take It Bird By Bird
Day 07: Drowning in Monkey Arms
Day 08: Wisdom from The Glass Onion
Day 09: When an Easy Project Goes Wrong
Day 10: In Case of Emergency
Day 11: Be Like George
Day 12: 40 Day Stories
Day 13: Small Detours
Day 14: Love at First Sight: Introducing Chip
Day 15: Stacking Wins
Day 16: When an Easy Project Continues to Go Wrong
Day 17: The Happiest Squirrel on Campus
Day 18: When the Window is Open
Day 19: On Being Awkward in Social Situations
Day 20: Hand Sanitizer
Day 21: Temperamental
Day 22: Ordinary Day? Add Baby Ducks
Day 23: Just Lint On a Sweater
Day 24: Easy DIY Twine Orb
Day 25: The Kindness of a Chainsaw
Day 26: Shop the Freezer
Day 27: Words We Never Forget
Day 28: Mission Accomplished (You are here. And I'm so glad that you are.)


Words We Never Forget

When I was nineteen years old, I had a professor I respected deeply. Her class challenged me. It was a 400-level rhetoric course, and I, as a third-semester sophomore, was the youngest student enrolled. All other students were seniors. 

I felt this disparity keenly. Although I had no tangible proof, I sensed that my older classmates analyzed more deeply, summarized more succinctly, and understood more easily.

In my mind, they sauntered through the readings while I trudged. They breezed through the weekly synopsis papers while I clawed for each word. During the first weeks, I faithfully attended class, but I didn't contribute to discussions often. I didn't want to reveal that I was an imposter.

It's been 25 years, and I still remember the fall afternoon when my professor returned graded essays at the end of class. Mine had a handwritten note asking for me to see her after class. As we stood on the sidewalk directly outside Sackett Building under the shade of the iconic elms that lined Penn State's mall, she asked if I'd permit her to share my writing as an example for other students who were struggling.

I was floored. Gobsmacked. Flabbergasted. Then she uttered this sentence: "Robin, you're so smart that you make my teeth hurt."

I've never forgotten those words. Especially because she said them to a person who, at the time, didn't even believe she was smart enough to be enrolled in the class. I wanted to respond, "Well, I make my own teeth hurt, too, but that's because I grind them as I painstakingly chew my way through your assignments."

Quite honestly, I didn't even know that I needed to hear that she thought I was smart, but once I knew, it sure helped. My confidence grew that day.

It's amazing how much power words possess. Now that I'm in a reverse position — teaching college students, rather than being a college student — I consider my own words thoughtfully. I want my feedback not only to be helpful and constructive, but also seasoned with grace and encouragement. 

I hope I've spoken words over students that they'll never forget in all the right ways. I hope that one day, a student will be able to recall the exact location where they stood when I said something they didn't even know they needed to hear until they heard it.


Shop the Freezer

Many years ago, our freezer door accidentally was left open. Everything was ruined, and ruined is a gentle word to describe the scene, dear friends. More graphically, the contents of the freezer had thawed and oozed and congealed into terrifyingly unidentifiable puddles of mucousy juice.

It was traumatizing, not only because it was disgusting, but also because some of that food was in the form of actual meals that I had prepared in advance for days when our schedules would be too hectic to make a decent dinner.

In advance! Advanced planning! One freezer door left ajar killed many of my dreams that day. It was a painful loss.

I try my hardest to consistently meal plan for each week, and I've gotten better at it over the last decade or so. That being said, some days I'm still surprised when I reach 5 PM and I remember that it's nearly dinner, that I have children, and somehow, I'm the one responsible for feeding them.

But not this week. This week I know what I'm doing. It's an official "Shop the Freezer" week.

This operates exactly like it sounds: nearly everything we eat this week will come from the freezer. I've excavated the bottom sliding freezer drawer, inventoried all the contents, and stacked items so the oldest Ziplock bags are in front. We'll have garlic and brown sugar chicken thighs in the crock pot, leftovers from pulled pork and barbeque beef, fried chicken sandwiches from frozen chicken breasts, and leftover roast. I'll finally use up half-eaten bags of frozen veggies. I'll boil, then pan fry the frozen pierogies with butter and carnalized onions. 

By the end of the week, that freezer will be so tidy, so updated, with no lingering unneglected corners. My heart for thriftiness and organization already is singing happy songs as I envision this.

Don't know what do for dinner this week? Do what I'm doing. Shop the freezer.


The Kindness of a Chainsaw

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were at an event where we spoke with a friendly married couple that we only nominally knew. They live on a large property, and they recently had been taking down some trees with a chainsaw. I perked up at this and said, "I need one of those!" I elaborated that I had cut down a sprawling bush in our backyard during the fall, but I didn't have a way to get rid of the stump. (I had tried, unsuccessfully, with a hand saw. Twenty minutes into that endeavor, I realized I was getting nowhere.)

The man said, "I could come by sometime with my chainsaw and take care of that for you." 

It was a kind sentiment, but we really didn't know these people especially well. I never thought of his offer again. I assumed that he never thought of his offer again, either. 

But last night, he reached out to my husband to get our address. This morning, he showed up with his chainsaw to cut down the stump. 

I'm so impressed. Touched, really. I know it only took him a few minutes to complete, but this gesture spoke volumes. It reminded me of the proverb, "Do not withhold good when it is in your power to act."

I'll never forget this kindness, all in the form of a helpful heart and a chainsaw.


Easy DIY Twine Orb

This little corner of my family room is a happy space. There's natural light, the wooden bench fits beside the couch perfectly, and my fiddleleaf fern is thriving. There's a contrast of textures, a cozy blanket, and best yet, there are books. Lots of books.

A pretty home doesn't need to be fancy and decorating doesn't need to be expensive. I find amazing treasures at thrift stores and garage sales, and when possible, I try my hand at making DIY projects.

That little orb sitting on the bench, for example? I made it last weekend using twine and metal wreath rings, both of which I bought at Dollar Store. (The rings came in a pack of three.) I simply positioned the rings together so they formed the orb, then wrapped the twine tightly until all the metal sections were concealed and the junctions were secured. 

Such a simple project for a such a reasonable price. It's the perfect addition to my happy little space.


Just Lint on a Sweater

An unexpected obligation sprung up in my schedule today. I already had packed the day to the brim, so over my cereal, I vainly attempted to adjust my schedule to make it all possible. No matter how I configured things, nothing seemed tenable. There simply were too many pieces in the puzzle. 

Within a minute I get an email: a long meeting in the center of my day unexpectedly was cancelled. Just like that, everything suddenly fit into place.

I don't know why I even get ruffled anymore. Time and again, I've witnessed how the little details work out. I mean, not to brag, but I've survived one hundred percent of the worst days I've had so far -- and if you're alive and reading this, so have you. So, why do I still sweat the smaller details?

I remember my dad once using an expression about a problem he was facing. It was a legitimate issue, but not one that held life-shaking consequences, and he maintained proper perspective. He told me, "Robin, this just lint on a sweater." 

Just lint on a sweater. Maybe annoying or irritating, and worth dealing with, but certainly nothing that deserved to be escalated or worried over. That quirky phrasing stuck with me.

My early morning mental gymnastics turned out to be unnecessary because the problem, like lint on a sweater, wasn't all that significant or permanent.

Today, let's brush off, not fixate on, what just amounts to lint on a sweater.


Ordinary Day? Add Baby Ducks.

Each day, after teaching my classes on campus, unless I have meetings or office hours, I automatically drive home and resume grading and preparing class content from my house. Although predictable, it's a comfortable rhythm.

Today I didn't immediately feel like going home, though. For no premeditated reason, I visited a local farm supply store. Given that I'm not a farmer, this makes no sense. I don't own acreage or tend chickens. I don't habitually listen to country music or get excited about machinery. But the store serves free popcorn, and that seemed like a good enough reason to stroll the aisles until I reached my favorite part of the store. Say hello to the baby ducks:

Sometimes it's baby chickens. Today, there were baby ducks. As they nuzzle together under glowing heat lamps in a pile of fluffy adorableness, I stand there enjoying my popcorn, feeling like maybe deep down inside, I secretly am a country girl.

Then I drive home and start working again. It's still an ordinary day, but one made just a bit better because of five minutes admiring some baby ducks.
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