Walking on Air

luca walking on air

the best air-walker I know is nine.

The air is heavy in Sheridan County today. We cannot see our mountains through the smoke that has settled in the valley. Idaho is on fire and our horizon is missing. Their stoic grandeur usually feels solid and certain, directional; I feel lost without the mountains to my west.

The missing mountains upend me even more as I leave summer days behind for my office and curriculum planning. It’s not that I hate coming to work – I love my job and I am annoyingly fond of the starting school year. But I do not like trading fresh air and sunshine for inside time. I always feel a bit lost in my air conditioned office.

Yet today I was happy to work indoors, if only to escape the smoke. The fog I face in my brain is so similar to the veil hiding my mountains. I know where the peaks are, but when they aren’t in sight I feel disoriented. I know how to plan the semester, but I can’t see beyond the pile of work in front of me to the start of classes.

As I point out before the start of every semester, when my usual landmarks are missing, I go looking for words. Sometimes I search for class readings and lesson ideas, but more often I read poetry. The poet’s economy of words smooths the frayed edges of my back-to-school brain. This August, I keep going back to the epitaph that was just added to Seamus Heaney’s grave in Bellaghy, Co Derry, Ireland: “walk on air against your better judgement.”

Heaney has explained the line, from his poem The Gravel Walks, as a new understanding, a break from his “earth hugging” work that is so closely tied to the practical world. He said he began “to look up” and realize that “the marvelous was as permissible as the matter-of-fact.” Heaney reminds his readers to seek the in-between spaces. He has said that the space between the “dream world” and the “given world” is beautiful, even necessary. tumblr_mig2mijBIR1rrbaxho1_1280

When we cannot see clearly, we are forced to look up from the practical, “given,” world. Maybe the smoky veil obscuring the mountains forces me to seek new landmarks. And maybe the haze of the new school semester forces me to seek inspiration in unfamiliar places. Heaney’s recommendation “to walk on air” suggests an action rooted in something like faith. We cannot use our knowing brains to understand the “dream world” – we must extend our thinking and trust something other than what we can see in front of us. I feel ungrounded without my mountains, but that seems to be just what Heaney is suggesting: an un-grounding that will reveal the marvelous.

The smoky air makes it hard for me to breath and I will welcome the change in winds forecasted to move this air away from our valley. I will welcome clear skies and familiar landmarks. Likely the haze in the air will dissipate far more quickly than the haze in my head, but maybe I can take advantage of the change in perspective and find something spectacular for my upcoming classes.

~ Sarah

A New Semester

pacific01

It’s August once again, and inevitably we begin thinking about the beginning of school. While many students in this country do not start until after Labor Day, most of us in the Rocky Mountain West start in late August. Our community college classes start on August 24, with faculty returning the week before. What spread out before me in May as a long and restful summer is coming to a crashing and busy end. But what I didn’t know when school ended in May was how my plans for the fall would change.

About a week ago, a friend of mine called and asked me if I would be interested in using her extensive research and material about American prisoners of war in WWII for a writing class, designing some way to help her begin to create curriculum to use the material she has collected over that last 20 years. All it took was one meeting with her to make me realize that I had just been given an incredible gift, a chance for students to work with primary source material, for them to learn history from letters, to learn about real people experiencing real hardship.

I have now rewritten the course outline for my English 1010 (college comp ) classes, designed a final project and decided on readings and on writing assignments. Luckily, I can do this easily, but what is important here, is not that I can do this, but that I should do this. As teachers, it is too easy to rely on the “same-old, same –old,” the tried and probably not so true material and techniques.   Writing texts are generally boring, generally not exciting, but going straight to a primary source, (in this case, letters from POWs) is fresh, is new and will fire the imaginations of students who are, for the most part, expecting school to be a not very exciting necessity.

The world is too rich a place for school to be dull, but school is dull if teachers are not excited about what they are doing. I am thrilled to have access to some new material even if it means a little extra work. I am lucky to have had this opportunity dumped in my lap. It is often too easy to say no, to come up with an excuse about not having time or not feeling comfortable trying something new at the last minute, but we miss out on so much unless we are willing to jump in, to take a chance, experiment. Writing can be taught in almost any context, and I, for one, do not want to read essays about what someone did on their summer vacation. I would rather read essays in which students struggle with new ideas that have been generated by reading things these students have never read before, generated by students grappling how others have coped with terrible experiences.

Besides the primary sources of the letters themselves, we will be reading two books, The Railway Man by Erik Lomax and Escape from Davao by John D. Lucas. The Lomax book is a first hand account of his imprisonment and torture by the Japanese during the war. Lomax ultimately, many years later, meets one of the men who tortured him. He comes to understand that the experience of torture is as damaging to the torturer as it is to the tortured. In this times when the United States has clearly engaged in torture of many people, this book will, I hope, provoke many conversations about the futility of war and of torture.

I cannot think of a more exciting way to begin my last year of teaching before I retire.

Jane

Daily Practice.

luca kayak

I am terrible at playing with my kids. But, I am good at getting my kids outside. A lot. We paddle boats, hike the hills, ride our bikes, and swim in Goose Creek. Our big, Wyoming backyard is my favorite distraction anytime of the year, but in the summer time we pack in the sunshine and water. We stretch our days out like sugary taffy. Current parenting clichés harp about screen time and nature deficit disorder, but for us being outside is like brushing our teeth – it is just what we do. That doesn’t always mean we stop to appreciate it.

I don’t have much down time in my day. Even in the summer when I’m not teaching, I throw all of myself into parenting and running a household. My boys are fun and independent, but managing (and feeding!) two, tween boys is busy. Earlier this summer I made a pact with some friends to consciously slow down, but as the summer passes, even five minutes of dedicated slowness seems impossible.frank in fishing hat

And then this weekend stillness hit me in the most unexpected place. My youngest son and I set out to paddle across a lake near our family cabin. It was the longest distance my nine-year-old has paddled in one shot. The wind was blowing hard, right in our faces. The other end of Meadowlark Lake seemed miles away. But the sun was high in the sky and the mountains shimmered above the lake. Our paddles dipped quietly in and out of the cold, high country water. And Luca whined. Not just a little complaining, but full on screeching about the wind and the waves and the distance. About the sun and the clouds and the water. About everything. I tried all of my outdoor super mommy tricks: singing, knock-knock jokes, chocolate bribes. He just couldn’t put his head down and paddle.

frank photo bombSo, I ignored him. I pulled and pushed my oar through the green waves. I focused on the resistance of the water in my shoulders and elbows. I welcomed the hot sun on my neck and the wind on my face. I fell into a rhythm of muscle and water.frank and fish

After about five minutes I talked Luca through my movements. I ignored his protests as I narrated each stroke. Listen to your paddle dip, I said. Feel the wind against your face. Pull through the water. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him let out a breath. I watched him dip his head and pull his boat against the wind. He was quiet. Ten minutes later, Luca spotted his brother and dad fishing near the end of the lake. They had lunch and fishing poles ready for us. Luca paddled the last five hundred yards fast. He held his head high and smiled. When we pushed our boats up on the beach for a picnic, he asked if he could paddle back to the truck after lunch.

boys and raftsI will never know if my accidental meditation helped my son paddle the distance across our favorite lake, but I know that I found that elusive place of presence that my girlfriends and I talked about. I’d found a daily practice amid the chaos of parenting, not separate from it. I’m good at taking my kids outside. I am good at making adventures for our family. I‘d like to be as good at helping them appreciate the experience.  ~ Sarah
dock jump

Confessions of a Screen Addict

Tongue River

Tongue River

I have this bad habit of leaving my smartphone on top of a pile of laundry. I did this the other day, and, well, you guessed it…it slid off, screen first, on to the hard tile floor. I said a silent prayer as I picked it up and turned it over…please don’t be cracked; please don’t be cracked.

The screen looked intact. I sighed in relief and then clicked on the button to turn it on. Nothing happened. I tried other buttons, and still, nothing happened. At the right angle, I saw a slight crack in the LCD screen. The glass was fine, but the LCD screen would not display any content. This would be an expensive repair.

That was a week ago, and while waiting for the parts to arrive, I’m forced to go sans phone. I hadn’t realized how much I used my phone, and being without it has me thinking about screen addiction and the outdoors.

When spending time camping or fishing, I don’t seem to miss my cell phone much unless I want to take pictures. And that’s Bassfishing22015all I use it for. I don’t even listen to music or books. I prefer to hear the wind in the trees, the birds singing, or the water lapping at the shore. When walking around town, I will listen to a book or music. This helps block out the street noises. Either way, when I’m outdoors, I don’t want to be bothered by technology.

The only time that this isn’t true is when I’m trying to organize a camping location with my husband or friends.

During the summer months, I have the flexibility of camping early in the week, unlike my family and friends who have to work 9-5 jobs 12 months out of the year. I’ll head up to the mountains a day or two early to beat the crowds and to scope out a secluded spot where my friends can meet me when they can leave work. This is a great plan until I’m in the mountains and suddenly find that I have no way of letting my camping partners know where to find me.

It seems that no matter what kind of plans we make ahead of time, there is always some confusion about where to find each other, and we’ll spend hours wandering roads and camping sites looking for each other, especially since we tend to avoid designated campgrounds.

Earlier this summer, I realized that not everyone understands that cell service is nearly impossible in the mountains. At a workshop within the Wyoming Writer’s Conference, I submitted a section of my novel about a woman stranded in the mountains. Several attendees (non-Wyomingites) asked, “Where is her cell phone? Why can’t she just call for help? Or even use a GPS to find out her location?” It seems that they had never been in the Wyoming mountains where there is no cell service or satellite access for GPS. I realized then that 1) I would have to explain this in my novel or show that her electronic devices were stolen; 2) there are few wild places left in this world where technology cannot interfere, and 3) I’m glad to be in Wyoming where I can access these wild places.

Moonrise2015I can say with certainty that I miss my phone. I miss checking Facebook when I wake up and reading my magazine apps before going to bed. But I am somewhat grateful for this forced break from that tiny screen. Although I don’t think I’m exactly addicted, it does provide the opportunity to set up more non-screen time and to spend it outdoors: just don’t expect any pictures.

~ Keri

Trails and Staircases: relearning to walk

Esker-Lakes-hiking-trail (2)

I always loved the outdoors. As a child, I lived where I could roam on my bike over dirt roads or wander in the woods behind my house. We camped as a family, and then later I camped and hiked with my husband and our children. I took my daughter and one of my sons backpacking, just the two of us. We, as a family, went to Yellowstone for week-long camping trips that sometimes included canoeing as well as hiking.

But things change. We get older and fatter and in less good shape. In the last year and half, I have had both of my knees replaced, and in looking back, I see that knee pain prevented me from doing much physical activity (except water exercise) for many years. My surgeon told me when I finally decided to replace the knees that I had needed to have them replaced for at least three years before I actually did it.

Knee replacement surgery requires a lot of rehab, not just the formal period of at least six weeks, but also careful use for months after the event. However, what I find interesting is not just the physical rehab work, but the conscious mental work that has to happen as well.

I have never been a particularly daring person. I have never, for example, rock climbed because I am sure that in the contest between flesh and rock, rock always wins in the end. When I learned to downhill ski, in my forties, I never skied anything harder than an intermediate trail, and never so fast that I would fall. But a solid hiking trail, where my feet were firmly on the ground was always a joy. However, what I am finding as I am becoming more mobile again, is that both the pain of unreplaced knees and the rehabbing of new ones has tested my physical self confidence in unexpected ways. For years, I would happily go on a day hike to a local fire lookout tower or walk to the local park. But now that I have new knees, I can see how I became increasingly less confident of what my body could do. I was made particularly aware of this when I visited my daughter last week. The stairway in her house is a little steeper than the one in my own house, and as I was descending it two days ago, I realized that in the eight years she has lived there, I had never walked down that staircase with normal alternating steps, but had always led with which ever leg was more painful. Two days ago, I stopped at the top of the stairs, and thought about it. I chose not to rely on the old habit but to descend “like a normal person.” It sounds so simple. Just walking downstairs. We learn it when we are two or three years old, but I have had to relearn it. In relearning, I have realized that there is a moment in the action of descending when we are putting all our weight on one leg and balancing for that instant. We totally take that action for granted until we cannot do it. Relearning it is hard. Our bodies, when they are in pain, do not trust that instant of on-legged balance.

What I see is that the confidence that goes with walking effortlessly, which is what most able-bodied people do, can be relearned, but it is a learning process. It does not come back without struggle, but in the end, I finally know that I can walk up and down stairs without thinking about each step, and I can walk an uneven trail without undue caution again as well.

Jane