Home Alone

frank creek School starts this week. My boys have new skinny jeans and overpriced t-shirts for their first day. We delivered their school supplies during last week’s open house and we are already spending afternoons running between football practice and the dinner table. They feign disgust at going back, but they’re at least a little psyched to see their friends and show off their new haircuts. It is time: ten year old boys are not meant to stay home all day with their mothers.

Our summer was largely unscheduled. My boys did not attend summer camp or take swimming lessons. They played some tennis and made a few short trips to Colorado, but most days were long, slow versions of a cut-rate sit-com: squabbling punctuated by adventure and surprisingly manageable chaos. At least twice a day somebody claimed to be bored.

Unscheduled days at home would have been impossible a year ago. The boys needed pretty much constant direction and supervision (not to mention squabble intervention!), but this summer they started to spend some time at home alone. I only leave them for an hour or so, and in the age of cell phones I’m never really out of reach. The boys usually watch T.V. or play the Wii, but they’ve also surprised me by reading while I’m at the gym. An hour to workout or meet a friend for coffee feels like freedom – for all of us.canoe and boys

Once they’d mastered hanging out at home solo, I started sending them on errands on their bikes. They run to the grocery down the hill for milk and bread. Frank picked up his new soccer cleats at the Sports Stop down on Main Street. I encouraged them to bike to the ice cream stand at the city park. As long as they stuck together and let me know where they were going, they had their run of town. The boys don’t always love being on their own, but when I overheard them bragging to their friends, I knew I wasn’t the only one happy with the new arrangement.

luca bikeSo it surprised me that my new habit of running out while the kids sit like slugs on the couch scared some of my peers. My closest friends nod and validate my parenting – either out of agreement or loyalty (I’m good with either option). But some other acquaintances seem surprised, even shocked at my willingness to leave my boys unattended. They have expressed the usual concerns: accidents, fires, kidnappings. “Don’t you worry?” they mutter. One woman even said, “Are you sure that’s legal?”

It seems that those concerns are too often the norm. In July, a South Carolina mother was arrested for letting her nine-year old daughter play at the park alone. The girl had a cellphone and it was broad daylight, but the local police determined that the child was in danger and she was placed in the custody of child protective services. Debra Harrell’s case is complicated by class and race and culture, but public reaction was revelatory: the parents of America must contend with a culture of fear.

We fear that our kids might be kidnapped (extremely rare – kids are more likely to have a heart attack). We fear that they won’t be smart enough or athletic enough. We worry that they will be too dependent on us or too wrapped up in the virtual world. We are afraid to trust our gut instincts and our intuition.   But the biggest fear is also the silliest: we fear the judgment of other parents. Who will leer down her nose at us? Who will disapprove of our kids, of us by extension? Who will turn her back on us?

This fear has become so central to parenting that we fail to recognize the real dangers in our children’s lives: grandiose expectations, bad food, concussions, a lack of comprehensive sex education, their tendency to text while moving, our tendency to forget about unconditional love. These are dangers we can do something about. We can examine our expectations, talk about food and sex, and model good behavior. We can give our kids practice – send them out on their own to experience natural consequences while making sure they have a soft place to land. It is a scary prospect. But I’m convinced it is what I signed up for; my job is to help them leave.

My boys will come home on the bus this afternoon. They will expect a snack and help with their homework.   I will ask them about school and they will shrug and mumble something odd. We will rush out the door to football practice and eat dinner at 8:30. I’m glad they still need my help navigating their daily lives – I dread the day they don’t need me anymore.  I know it is around the corner.first day of school 2014

Revision is the Heart of Writing



A couple of weeks ago I attended two workshops at the Wyoming Writers Conference here in Sheridan, Wyoming. Mark Spragg, author of Where Rivers Change Directions, An Unfinished Life and Fruit of Stone, among others, presented a workshop on “The Final Edits,” but what he talked about was really more than that. He is an author who refines and refines his work before anyone else sees it, and he spoke to the importance of deleting our favorite sentences, our favorite words and our most artful metaphors. Like Anne Sexton said, “kill your darlings.”

My daughter-in –law, also a writer, attended these workshops with me, and after the conference I gave her what I consider to be the second draft of a novel that didn’t seem to be going anywhere.  The first draft of the story had come in a rush of obsession, where the characters themselves led me on their quest, let me into their hearts and minds.  However, that was the first draft. I did a round of edits, but not real revisions. For example, I realized that this story, which takes place mostly in the outdoors, had no birds in it, so I went back and inserted birds in appropriate places. Not a major change, but one that did make the setting richer.  Through a somewhat unusual process, I submitted this draft to an agent who began circulating the story. Editors sent back comments like “the stakes aren’t high enough.” And a year ago, I began taking the story apart again. I changed from a first- person narrative to a third-person omniscient one, but the plot stayed essentially the same. I got about half way through the story on this draft, and while I was happy with some it, other parts felt draggy.

Then yesterday, my daughter-in-law sent me her thoughts on the draft, and I began to really understand what those “stakes aren’t high enough” comments meant.  Part of it is thinking about, and writing about not just what is happening externally to characters, but what is happening inside them.  What is it that makes them tick, and what is it that drives them, and how to they change in the process?

I am completely rethinking this book. The summer will not be long enough to complete it, but I see now that the most interesting parts of the story are the parts that I sort of took for granted in the first drafts, and that those are the parts that I have to examine more closely. I  think that I didn’t understand who the main character really is, nor did I see why.  I now see that there’s a much richer and more interesting book hiding in there, and that I just have to find it.

Once again, I am relearning that revision is the heart of writing. That first draft is fun. It’s a kind of adventure in its way, and it’s the place where new writers stop, but it’s never the “true” story, (or at least rarely). It’s the starting place, but that first draft is never the end



Spring Fever

2014-03-08 12.11.07

Melting snow in the Big Horns

It’s spring, and despite the snow and cold wind, I can taste summer. I can hear the birds’ arrival, and I can see signs of spring in the baby bunnies outside my office window, fawns grazing at the side of the road, and green-tinged tree buds scratching at the glass as the wind blows. I feel a deep restlessness in me as well. I don’t want to wear my jacket or long sleeve shirts. I’m tired of wearing tights and thick pants. I want to go play. I want to be outside hiking, biking, breathing the mountain air. I don’t want to grade papers or discussion posts. I don’t want to answer student emails. I want to be done with the semester already. But despite these feelings, a sense of duty drags me out of bed, gets me to work, and helps me complete my to do list.

On top of having spring fever, next semester I will be on sabbatical working on a writing project, so I’m having an extra hard time getting anything done. I describe it to my colleagues as having senoritis: that feeling of new adventures beginning and old ones ending and the feeling that “now” doesn’t matter much. My fingers itch to write, and my brain is consumed by other projects unrelated to grading and teaching English.

I know I’m not alone in this feeling. It’s this time in the semester when my students stop turning in work, or they turn in sloppy work. It’s also that time of year when we’re all weary…weary of winter and weary of routine. Often, some students will disappear. They may resurface at the end of April suddenly aware that they have to pass the class. Hopefully it won’t be too many, and hopefully it won’t be too late. I remember having these feelings as a college student. I would resist them when I could, but sometimes I skipped class to spend time outside or to simply sleep.

As an instructor, it’s more difficult to skip class. I could take a personal day here and there, but often, they’re accompanied with guilt, and there are still emails to answer and grading nagging in the back of my mind. That carefree irresponsibility I felt as a student no longer exists. Perhaps I’ll experience some of that on sabbatical, but I really don’t know.

I’m not sure what to expect on sabbatical. I’ll have a project to complete, so I’ll keep a schedule, but there won’t be anyone around to make sure I’m producing my self-assigned number of pages. It will be a different type of work…a different focus for me, and I’m excited. I’m also a little bit worried–especially with how I feel right now. What if I just don’t do it? What if I can’t do it? What if all this time I have been working hard to convince others to pay me to write, and then I just can’t produce?

Are these fears that my students experience? Is this perhaps why they don’t do the work or the reason they procrastinate? I suspect this is part of it. I also suspect there are other mitigating circumstances that I’ll never know or perhaps understand. This is why I get so upset with Complete College America. I want my students to succeed, but I also want them to work hard at it. A degree should be earned, not given. I want students to complete college, and I believe our society is better off if our citizens have an education. But what bothers me most is that legislators wants to tie our funding to how many students finish a degree. This puts the responsibility of learning squarely on teachers’ shoulders, not on the students’. This is the problem.

I can give my students every opportunity to learn: provide them resources, spend hours responding to their essays, spend time talking them through the assignments, and provide feedback on every missed quiz question or misleading discussion post. However, if the students do not do the reading, don’t show up for class, don’t access the resources, or don’t do the work, they will never learn. And this is what the completion agenda does not address.

I can only do so much to motivate my students. In the end, they have to drag themselves out of bed when they have spring fever. They have to talk themselves into doing the work even when they don’t feel like it. They have to decide to make education a priority in their lives, and they have to decide to stick to it and to do everything they can to learn. I can’t do it for them.

So, dear students, I know how you feel, but together, we need to hang on and get it done because come summer, we can either have a sense of accomplishment or disappointment. The choice is yours.

~ K


oecw tents 2

Two weeks ago I came out of the mountains.  My husband and son drove across Wyoming to fetch me and my backpack full of filthy laundry.  I said goodbye to my new friends and climbed into our car for the first time in thirty days. I’d walked nearly a hundred miles with my pack.  I saw a Grizzly bear and Bighorn sheep.  I bushwhacked through dead-fall and climbed a pass into Yellowstone.  I baked cinnamon rolls and pizza at altitude. I pitched tents in the rain and hid from lightening under stands of thick, green trees.  I wore the same t-shirt for a month and bathed in icy creeks.  I slept on rocks and was eaten alive by mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds. But it was sitting in the car that was tough.

oecw walksI kept a log of my twenty-seven days in the backcountry.  I needed to have the facts straight – my writing was not reflective or nuanced, but rough and fragmented.  My brain was working at warp speed absorbing new information and adjusting to seventeen new personalities.  Feedback was constant: the natural consequences inherent to living in the mountains are hard to ignore.  If your sleeping bag gets wet, you’re cold.  If you drink dirty water, you’re sick.  If the camp stove breaks, you’re hungry.  We learned to take care of our gear, to be methodical, to go slow to go fast.  I kept track of the facts in my water-warped notebook, but it wasn’t until I sat in the car with my family that I began to piece together the rush of days spent living in a tent. And as is usual for me, I have more questions than answers.

brooks lakeI adjusted easily to the physical living of an extended pack trip.  My labored frontcounty workout routine paid off – I hiked well and despite my relative old age, I kept up with the teenagers on my trip.  I learned medical terminology and the advanced first aid curriculum without too much effort.  I cooked on our little stove and managed to keep from hurting myself or anyone else with our ubiquitous bear spray. It is the headier stuff that I continue to wrestle with.  I wonder about the strength and validity of the relationships I built in the snow and muck of hiking.  I think about what I learned from teaching in the mountains with a two foot white board and camp utensils.  I have new questions about my students and their morphing learning styles.  I think about technology and my extended break from anything electric outside of my headlamp and a fire pit.  I wonder about my stilted writing as I work to transcribe my scribbled log.

oecw classroomStill, I found a quiet certainty on the mountain.  Despite a nearly unbearable ache for my family, I was happy and content.  There is something liberating and strong about being able to carry everything you need on your back, to move with ease and assurance by map and compass, to cook and eat just what you need.  In time my writing will become reflective and nuanced.  I will weave an understanding of my off-grid time with words and explanation, but for now, I am content to record the experience.  I draw great hope from the simple reality of those thirty days and for a while I just want to sink into the pictures and the memories.  I always have more to learn.

– S2013-06-23 07.25.59

A Good Read: The Aviator’s Wife

Aviator's WifeIt’s approaching the end of May, and I finally finished reading a book I began in February: The Aviator’s Wife.

The cover of the book clearly states that it is a novel; however, it is historical fiction focused on Anne Marrow Lindbergh, Charles Lindbergh’s wife. In this novel, we hear Anne Marrow’s voice–the story of meeting, loving, and living with THE Charles Lindbergh. Even more so if listening to the novel, which I did.

Often, I had to remind myself that it was a novel…the basic events were factual: their wedding, their flights, the kidnapping of their son, World War II, Charles Lindbergh’s death; however, the book captures the reader’s imagination so thoroughly, it’s easy to think we hear Anne Marrow Lindbergh’s inner thoughts and feelings.

Reading historical fiction often leaves me wondering how the author could write such a novel. Where is the line between fact and fiction? How does an author play with that? Perhaps it’s because I’m more of a fiction writer–it feels safer to invent a character and put that character through various events and adventures. It seems more difficult to imagine the lives of historical figures and imagine how they felt about historical events or how they navigated through their lives behind closed doors. The fact that Melanie Benjamin does this so well is not lost on me. In fact, I wonder how the Lindbergh family feels about the novel. I have not read comments from the family. Perhaps you have? Feel free to comment below!

Besides the questions about writing historical fiction, the book awakens questions about womanhood, marriage, writing, identity, among others. These questions may always go unanswered, but seeking answers is why I read.

This novel lead me to purchase two more books about Anne Marrow Lindbergh: a biography by Susan Hertog and Anne Marrow Lindbergh’s own writing Gift from the Sea. Happy reading!