Talking to strangers often uncovers sources of wisdom in unexpected places.
When I decided to go to college as a forty-something, there was no question in my mind that I would be an English major. I was born to be an English major. Still, I had no idea that the journey I was embarking on would change me forever. I anticipated a degree broadening my job opportunities. I did not expect that every belief I’d ever held would be challenged or that I’d be forced to ponder the merits of my beliefs.
After a series of unfortunate events and a hair-raising divorce, I found myself a middle-aged, empty nester. I had no job skills except as an administrative assistant. Additionally, I was treading the waters of debilitating depression with no relief in sight. It was time to take a long, practical look at my life, so I did.
I sought treatment for the depression and enrolled in college. As daunting as the four years of higher education looked, at least I would be doing something for the next four years. High anxiety, coupled with my depression, made the mere idea of taking face-to-face classes and interacting with people intimidating. So, I opted to take my freshman year of college online, comfortably tucked away in an oversized chair in my tiny house on seventeen acres.
My mother and my older sister, Sue, instilled in me a love for reading and an appreciation of the power and pleasure found in imagination. Mom read to me a lot from picture books such as The Pokey Little Puppy—a favorite because I loved dogs so much—and others such as Little Black, a Pony, and Big Red and Little Black. My sister, Sue, four years my senior, read to me regularly. My favorite books included The Little Green Frog, Little Women, and the Little House on the Prairie series.
Like most children who have someone to read to them regularly, I delighted in hearing the same stories again and again. Thanks to my mom and Sue, in the second grade, I was allowed to sign out books from the “chapter book” area of our school library because I was reading at a sufficiently advanced level. There is no more generous gift that adults can give children than reading to them and with them as often as possible. As a university professor, I see the difference it makes in students’ academic success, no matter what their academic major.
Sue, who was born to become, and so became, a teacher took enormous pleasure in designing settings in which to enjoy other imaginative activities. Few things were more exciting to me than being invited to play “house” or “school” with my sister.
She transformed our play area at one end of the family room in the basement into charming make-believe homes or one-room schoolhouses. Often, a friend or two, some dolls, and I enjoyed Teacher Sue’s lessons while seated in a circle at her feet as she taught us one thing or another. As a professor, I always have my students sit in a circle. Sue’s influence shows up there as well.
Even better than spending time in the play area with Sue was an invitation to spend time with her in her bedroom. It was a magical place adjacent to the play area in the basement. She lovingly transformed her bedroom into a snug and safe little nest, which I suspect was her intent. The room housed a collection of whimsical items that she rearranged periodically, continually revising the vibe or theme in the space.
My brother, Gary, called Sue the “trinket” sister because of her love for tiny boxes and chests. Indeed, when her gerbil, Kimberly, died, Sue laid the dainty rodent to rest in a miniature red and blue treasure chest lined in red felt and then buried it outside her bedroom window. Another beloved item was a lemon-yellow, toadstool-shaped table lamp. Sue and her friend Kimberly (the gerbil was her namesake) won the lamp when B-16 was called at a beach bingo game one summer.
Sue also shared her room with Mr. Chips, a large, stuffed monkey, and Ellis, a barbie doll who Sue insisted was alive. I never witnessed Ellis doing any of the things that living creatures do. I became a believer, however, after Sue showed me the tiny bites missing from the grilled cheese sandwich that she had taken to her room for Ellis’ lunch.
It was no surprise that years later, as a teacher-librarian and an elementary school teacher, Sue’s libraries and classrooms share the same homey and imaginative qualities as her childhood bedroom. She has a knack for making cold places warm and alienating spaces safe.
As a child, I did not know how to do those things for myself. Reading and imagination were the best parts of “home,” thanks to my mother and my sister. They shared and showed me how and why to love and to use both in life’s best and worst moments. I treasure their legacies.
Thank you for reading. I appreciate you.
I figure infectious disease researchers and organizations like the WHO and the CDC are more in the know than the armchair quarterbacks staking a claim in one camp or another on social media. We are living in scary times. But something pretty neat is happening too. Perhaps you’ve noticed.
My life has never fit standard templates. So, I have always trusted my gut when making decisions. Many of my worst choices, according to most standards, became my best decisions. That’s because they rarely adhered to rules or templates about what, when, and how one should do things. When we “should” all over one another, we build traps and cages for one another. We need to stop that because the best lives are spent exploring myriad roads. That’s how we discover our passions, our gifts, and our purposes.
I dropped out of high school in the 11th grade. At the time, I would have said I was burned out and bored. Looking back, what I called boredom and burnout probably had something to do with my yet-to-be diagnosed narcolepsy. It is hard to feel sleepy all day, every day, no matter how many hours of sleep one gets. Fighting to stay awake is literally painful. Therefore, going to school was painful. So, I stopped going.
I moved to Toronto where I got a job working at the head office of an insurance company downtown. For a few years, I worked in a clerical position in cubicle culture. I made a decent salary for someone without a lot of education and I was fortunate to work with interesting people. I also became certified as an aerobics instructor and taught in the company’s fitness center. I acquired a few job skills along the way as well.
At one point, I took an in-house course on effective business writing. It was taught by a woman whose name was Leesha Van Leewan. Leesha had a presence like I had never seen before. Her hair was flaming red and she moved through space like a dancer. As I listened and learned, I thought, “that’s where I want to be.” I’d never imagined myself teaching. Nonetheless, my epiphany that day was the beginning of my journey to the front of the university classroom.
Today Sara, Shannin, and I head home from our Wine & Words Writing Treat in Branson, Missouri. We’ve had a lovely and productive time since we arrived on Wednesday. Each of us tackled a range of writing and work related projects ranging from a scholarly article on “Pretty Little Liars” to freshman composition syllabuses.
We “pommed” religiously, more or less, in keeping with the practice we’ve established through our Facebook writing group called Write-ins for Academics. “Pomming” is the term we use to describe our way of keeping our butts in the chair when writing. It’s a tried and true method of increasing productivity and efficiency called the Pomodoro Technique. Essentially, you work in 25 minute increments, followed by 5 minute breaks. That’s one “pom.”
You’re not supposed to do more than 4 consecutive poms without taking at least a 30 minute break. As a purist, I stick to the 25/5 model for pomming though some in WIFA (Ha! Now we have an acronym so we’re officially official!) are known to work in 50/10 minute poms. I knew I was truly a control freak when, as the founder and administrator of the group, I had a quiet little meltdown in my head because people were breaking the “pom” rules of order. (I’m working on that tendency of mine, I promise.)
When I first heard about “pomming” I was skeptical. I was certain I’d lose my train of thought in the five minute breaks. On the contrary, however, those breaks keep me from going brain dead when writing. Rarely do I write to that horrid state of exhaustion where it seems that all the words in the world have been taken. Pomming has also taught me that if you spend even a short time on something most days of the week, you can actually produce something. On busy days, squeezing in one pom, or even a truncated pom (15/5–oh the horror!) yields more than a pomless day yields. I have been lax about my research of late, but I can’t blame it on lack of time.
Like everyone else, I have 24 hours a day to get things done. That means I have 168 hours a week to work with. If I sleep 8 hours a night (56 /week), eat/cook 3 hours a day, , work 8 hours a day M-F , CrossFit 1 hour a day M-F, and do horse things 8 hours a week, I still have 38 hours a week left to do other things. Wow.
Now, I know of no academic who works only 40 hours a week. So, there’s that. Likewise, I do grocery shop and drive to and from school and CrossFit and so on. Still, that leaves a lot of hours just begging to be used productively.
I know lots of people aren’t fans of New Year Resolutions. I am a fan of them because I love beginnings and endings. I love fresh starts and invitations to take stock of how things are working or not working in some realm or other. That’s what beginnings and endings are; they’re opportunities to regroup and get back on track with things that are already priorities and set new ones.
So, as my friends and I prepare to head home from our few days of indulgence in wine and words, I’m reestablishing my personal priorities and planning how best to use those 38 hours that it is so easy to waste. At the top of my list of priorities is getting back on track with eating habits that are in line with my fitness goals. As Coach Ben says, “all the lemon squeezes in the world can’t make up for a crappy diet.” My showmanship pants, which have grown ridiculously snug, or rather I have grown and thus my pants are snug, support Ben’s claim. So it goes. That’s a fixable problem.
This morning we will restore the cabin to the state of neutralness in which we found it and head out. I’ll have about 6 hours to think about my priorities and I’m looking forward to that time. It’s a new year with no mistakes in it yet, more or less. I’ve decided it is going to be a good one.