Monthly Archives: April 2012

Cookie Cutter Life

I had a simple epiphany during this experience of future home shopping in this past month: I do not want a cookie cutter house. That is to say, I do not want to live in a newly-constructed house or condo that looks exactly (or close to exactly) like the next-door neighbor’s place. Would it be amazing to be the first owners of  a place? Certainly. But in searching for homes, I found myself more intrigued by all of the houses that had been lived in, the ones that had been personalized and loved already — even if it was sometimes hard to look past funky and/or odd decor choices.

I was explaining this to my friend last week when I was visiting California, and she fully agreed. Just like people, she said, who don’t want to have a cookie cutter kind of life. I translate that to mean that there is no neat, orderly path to a person’s life, nor should there have to be one. There are choices that lead to more choices; there are moments that feel like setbacks; there are lessons hammered into us by life until they are internalized and learned. And we are in charge of being creators and shape-shifters instead of cut-outs.

This idea of a call to change and evolve has been presented to me again and again in the past few months. Most recently this occurred at 10:30 am Mass last Sunday at Stanford — my only parish since leaving Cincinnati. Right now is the Easter season, and the priest talked about this in his homily. Lent is its own thing, he explained, a time of self-examination, preparation, cleansing. Easter, on the other hand, is a time of a renewal, a time to ask ourselves if we are going to remain exactly as we are (or were), or if we are going to allow our hearts and minds to be moved in new directions. In a moment of being touched by his words, my inner nerd couldn’t resist taking a few notes (there is, apparently, a first time for everything) on a scrap of paper. He went on to relate this to the idea of the two forms of “to be” in Spanish: ser and estar. One implies that something is permanent (i.e. Yo soy una mujer) and one can be changed (i.e. Estoy cansada hoy). He probed us further to reflect: What parts of you are fixed? And in what parts of your life will you allow yourself to be changed?

I was convinced that this man had somehow been spying on my life since last June when we moved to Alaska. Did he know how much I needed to and was ready to hear this message? The entirety of these past ten months has been nothing but change and adjustment… and I know there is more to come. But if I am grounded in my own sense of self, with the support of Husband and loved ones, then I can embrace change even when it creates discomfort or growing pains. If I never experienced those feelings, then I’d likely be stuck and/or too cozy in the cookie cutter zone.

In the homily, he also talked about falling in love. How in the midst of falling in love, we don’t even realize how much the other person is filling us up with light and energy (and vice versa), and how — together — we are changing the other person’s ways of being. And by the same token, when we grieve for something we’ve lost, we experience emptiness and literal pain in our hearts and bodies. Funny thing is, he said, a broken heart is an open heart. This was the part when I felt tears spring to my eyes… because I thought of myself and the people I love and the times our hearts have been broken. And more importantly, how each time we have been strengthened and able to take on a new challenge or a new relationship. The state of broken-ness is temporary, never fixed.

It took a week away from Husband and life in Alaska to recognize how much progress we have made, in our lives and our relationship, since we moved. Just as I know that we are not going to purchase a cookie cutter house, I also know that we are quite far from having a cookie cutter life. And we wouldn’t be ourselves if it were any other way.

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A Tale of Two Birthdays

That's my dog - another essential part of my family, of course.

On my birthday last April 15, I was in a convention center-turned-ocean of volleyball courts at an away tournament in Reno. I was coaching the girls’ club team I had been with for the previous five years, and somehow I had been saddled with carrying in the ball carts and ball bags. Some accident of the way our carpools had shaken out, I think. There were about a bajillion volleyball teams there, plus the coaches of those teams, plus the parents and families of the players, plus the officials and tournament staff.

Husband was in Alaska starting his new job. My best friends were mostly in California or Ohio, living their regular lives. My immediate family was in Cincinnati and Philadelphia, respectively.

In spite of all of the people who were physically around me at the tournament itself, I felt so terribly alone. Now I’m not a huge birthday person — I don’t need to be showered with presents and feel the need to have big parties. But at the time I remember thinking to myself and telling Husband on the phone, “All I want right now is for someone who really loves me to hug me today.” I found myself crying and wishing to be anywhere else in the world near a loved one. (For the record, the day ended well and memorably, thanks to my fellow coaches, who insisted on birthday fun — I am grateful to them for that, more than they know.)

I wasn’t then, nor am I now, concerned at all about adding years to my life. With age comes wisdom that I cannot have any other way, and I appreciate that fact. But at the time and on that day, I was slightly petrified of the unknown future: how was I going to make it through 2.5 more months living apart from Husband? And finish packing up our apartment essentially by myself? And figure out where to live and what to do in Alaska once we did move? Thinking about all of that was overwhelming, and having a birthday only emphasized that feeling of inevitable, uncontrollable change.

Fast forward to this past Sunday, another April 15 in a new year. Husband and I were down in Anchorage, and we were curling together in a bonspiel (read: curling tournament) with family friends. After two victories and one loss, we lost our last game, but that was completely overshadowed by how much fun it was to do something together, to laugh and joke with our teammates and opponents alike at both the great and not-so-great shots. The drive home was beautiful, given the advent of Alaska spring and our 12+ hours of daylight that are continuing to increase each day. Plus we jammed to some of our old CD mixes in the car — does anyone even do that anymore? A simple day with my most favorite person — no gifts required.

We still have lots to figure out going forward, but right now I’m not petrified the way I was a year ago. I have had a year to learn the virtue of “surrender,” as my great friend just wrote to me, even while facing a whole plethora of new challenges and uncertainties. I actually have a better sense of myself now and an ever-growing appreciation for the gift that is my family community, made by blood and by bonds of love & friendship that time and distance apart only strengthen. I understand better that making crazy, unexpected leaps sometimes is just part of the process of living a full life. I remember telling my friends that my plan before moving to Alaska was to just “flow with the Universe,” and so far the results have been solid. What a difference a year can make.

Every birthday I am more certain that the present I always want and wish for is time with my family and friends. Sometimes that time comes on un-birthday days, and they are no less special then. Reading the cards that arrived in the mail today reminded me yet again that I already have everything I need: Love in its best forms. And that holds true no matter where I might be in the world on April 15.


All Good Readers Unite

Currently I am working with the 6th-grade students in a 5th/6th combo class. There are 11 of them, and we have been meeting for about 40 minutes per lesson — today was Day 4 of our mini-writing unit. I am asking them to write the time-honored five-paragraph essay. In today’s teaching universe it is more correct to say “multi-paragraph” essay because obviously not every idea can be argued in only three little body paragraphs, and on the flip side, students don’t need to be forced into saying more than is necessary to get the point across. I imagine five paragraphs has held for so long  because of the magical wonder of things that come in threes, so intro+body+body+body+conclusion makes sense.

They are writing character analysis essays about a character of their own choosing from a novel they have read this year. Many of them (but not all) are writing about one of the characters from The Hunger Games trilogy. Overall I think they’re doing rather well so far, especially considering that I’m moving them along faster than if I had a full class. Today I explained to them that they are allowed and encouraged to make any argument about their character that they wish… as long as the text supports that idea. This is the moment when I call upon their CSI: (fill in city of one’s choice) knowledge — when the CSIs come up with a theory about a case but don’t have evidence, then they either have to find irrefutable evidence to back it up or revise their theory based on the evidence they do have. (Referencing pop culture is one of my favored teaching tools.) In other words, if they misunderstood the book, then it’s more than likely they would make unsupported inferences about their characters. The pre-writes I saw today need some revision but not much.

Now in the land of online news, people are not called upon to write multi-paragraph essays to demonstrate their understanding of articles. But people feel compelled to write comments on material they read and/or engage in dialogue around it, and I do enjoy this democratic freedom. What is painful to me — when I  feel interested enough in an article to read some of the commentary — is the seemingly poor reading comprehension of the readers. So many comments (especially the hyper-critical or extremely favorable ones) don’t seem to reflect what is actually written.

Within any article’s comments, I am simply irritated when people are 1) snarky; 2) self-righteous; and/or 3) easily offended by any kind of disagreement or question of their opinion. But I am plain old concerned when folks seem to have completely missed the point/thesis/gist of the article, not to mention the author’s tone… then compound the problem by taking on the tone of #1-3 above. There are multiple contributing factors to this, one of which is the ease that one can just click “Comment” and start writing based on a gut reaction or respond to another comment in the same way. Another would be the anonymity that virtual commenting provides — it feels safe to make ridiculous remarks without necessarily having to put your live face behind them. Most of all, however, I am worried that people in general are weak readers. (insert my sad face here)

There’s a reason why people have to take standardized tests, at least in my opinion: they’re essentially massive reading comprehension tests. Going into college or graduate school would be awfully hard if you couldn’t read non-fiction and/or fiction… and write about it in a meaningful way. Sure, Twitter and texting are here to stay, but there is still  a space in the world for writing that is beyond 140 characters. Maybe articles should have a quick 3-question multiple-choice quizlet to check comprehension before you’re allowed to comment….???

Now I know that my English-major self is clearly biased and possibly over-reacting. Regardless, I know that it is so important that our students — who will grow into adults faster than we can think — read and write competently for schooling purposes and for being good at life. It would be wonderful if the comments people share were more often examples of thoughtful, constructive criticism and praise grounded in the text. I don’t think that’s asking too much. It’s the least I am asking of my students.


Temporary Spaces

Once upon a time, I grew up on a corner lot in Cincinnati, in a four-bedroom, 2.5-bath house that my parents bought before I was born and still live in now. Did I mention that it also has a two-car garage and a finished basement? And a yard? I didn’t know for those many years of living at home pre-college  that all of those things were taken-for-granted luxuries until my own process of house-hunting with Husband got started in these past few weeks.

In college, living in the same dorm room or sorority house room for nine months is not a big deal, because everyone on campus does that. My senior year, I actually moved in and moved out every quarter — moved in prior to fall quarter, moved out before winter quarter because I was studying abroad, and moved back in before spring. Then moved again in the summer for grad school. Not a fun process, but what is packing up one room — and only one room — of stuff? Not a big deal.

As a Bay Area apartment renter upon entering the real world, I was lucky enough to have lovely, long stints in only two locations over the course of seven years — three and four years, respectively. Those lengths of time sound like eons compared to the living “sprints” of college.

What I hadn’t truly prepared myself for, upon moving up here to AK, was living out of boxes for more than a year. Not bueno. Before Husband left last March to get started with his job, we started packing. And I kept packing up our apartment after he left, all the way up until June, when I finally left too. Our boxes and cars were shipped up… and at this point I have zero clue — in spite of my meticulous labeling — what is inside some of the boxes. I’m not even sure where all of our boxes are! Some at his parents’ house, some in storage, some with us at our current house-sitting gig. It is unsettling, at best. It makes me wish that packing up and moving were as easy as dealing with Barbie’s home and office module (you know, the one with the Murphy bed and the desk that also folded up into the wall).

My sister had this when we were kids and I LOVED playing with it.

What is difficult is this sense of living temporarily, like we’re never really settling into a space because it doesn’t belong to us. It’s one thing to charge forward in life and career, but there is a sense of stability in having one home, one place that feels safe and sacred and… regular, for lack of a better term. Like even when all of the craziness of a day or a boss is inside your head, going home is an escape from that. Right now, being half in and half out of a combination of boxes, baskets, and suitcases is consistently disconcerting.

I am sure, as with all things in life, that “this too shall pass,” and it won’t be an eternity until we have a place of our own. And at the same time, I am a wee bit anxious to find a home that will anchor us a bit more securely to our life here. I need that in a physical way — I miss some of our furniture and all of our art. But I also need it an emotional sense, because living in temporary spaces makes it seem like we can just pick up and leave at any time, so I keep looking in the rearview mirror and wondering, even while I am happy with Husband and the possibilities of our life here. For me, part of living somewhere is investing in the community, and that is so much easier to do when I know I’m going to be around for a bit, like not just for a few months here and there.

I also think that both of us (Husband and I) are excited about this “grown-up” endeavor of buying a house. Not to say that we are rushing into anything, because God knows we have seen some absolutely terrible properties, but it certainly feels like a solid, logical next step in our married life together. We started on the process of building our relationship many years ago, and building up the life of a home together is something we have been looking forward to since we moved up here. In fact it was a motivating factor in deciding to move, because we knew we could afford a real house with a yard up here (as opposed to renting forever in the Bay Area, probably, short of winning the lottery).

For now we are enjoying the house hunting process, and every time we walk into the front door of another place, I know we are trying to picture ourselves plus our dog plus future kiddos inside. That’s a good feeling, one that will get us through living in these temporary spaces and places.