ViolinThe Olympics are over, and true to form, they were surrounded by controversy: stray dogs, hotel issues, judging bias, and more. But there were still plenty of Olympic moments that can teach us life lessons.

One Olympic moment that resonated with me was Jason Brown‘s figure skating performances. The skating world wanted him to repeat his amazing U.S. Championship performance, and they hoped he would win a medal. But that wasn’t his goal. He simply wanted to skate well and to have fun. The look on his face when he placed 9th was priceless: he smiled and his coach hugged him. He was so happy–not to win a medal, but to PLACE in the top 10! Some critics in the skating community were disappointed. He wasn’t; nor was I. No, his performances were not the performances of a lifetime, and that’s what resonated with me. He made mistakes, but he was still happy with how he skated and he sill skated beautifully. He went out there and had fun!

We tell children to have fun when they’re playing sports. My mother told me that all the time. Somewhere along the line, I forgot that lesson. Instead, I worry about making mistakes and looking stupid. This is especially true playing a musical instrument.

I have been playing violin since I was four years old…well, until I switched to viola when I was 17. From there, viola became my go-to instrument for classical music. My violin became my “fiddle” and came out when I showed off my Swedish folk music. On viola, I have played in several symphony orchestras: amateur and professional. On violin, my symphony playing ended in college in Tucson, AZ when college work got to be too busy to continue playing. I picked it up again in Cheyenne several years ago, but I continued to play viola through graduate school and beyond.

Last fall I got a surprising call from Powder River Symphony. They were in desperate need for a violinist, not a violist. The repertoire included songs I had played, so I said yes. I soon realized I was a bit over my head. I had played those pieces, but that was in high school and some of them I had played on viola. But I was committed to playing the concert.

I practiced. I was ready.

The concert came, I walked on stage, saw that large audience and froze. My fingers were stiff. I could barely play one note.

Somehow I managed to get through, and amazingly enough, the director asked me to come back!

I did.

The same thing happened. I froze.

I thought I had put those demons to rest. The demons that continually repeated, “You suck! You can’t play this! Those people are watching you and wondering why they’re paying you to play!” They were loud and clear, and those voices affected my fingers.

Again, after the concert, the conductor asked me to return.

As I smiled and nodded, my mind screamed, “Seriously!? Didn’t you see how much I sucked!?”

The next concert was Feb. 23rd. I practiced more and more…my fingers were black from practicing.

My black fingers from practicing.

My black fingers from practicing.

I was scared to death. That fear drove me to practice, so it was a good thing. But something else happened.

The Olympics.

And this appeared on Facebook from Sarah:

Suddenly, I saw these two mindsets everywhere: my students, my co-workers, athletes, and especially, the Olympians. In particular, I recognized that Jason Brown was coming from a “growth mindset.”

I recognized that I was behaving in a “fixed mindset” rather than a “growth mindset.” That little diagram changed everything. I realized that I had a choice: I could approach this concert with continued fear or I could learn from it. I decided to learn from it.

I went to rehearsals with the idea to learn from my mistakes–not to worry about making them. It amazed me at how quickly I learned.

The concert date arrived and I breathed, thinking of Jason Brown. My mind settled in and instead of the demons, I heard the music in my mind as I played. The audience disappeared. My fingers relaxed. I played, and I played well. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good, and it was better than the rehearsals.

All in all, I have learned to quiet those demons again.



Going back to school is like standing in front of a fire hose on a hot day: refreshing but entirely too much to handle all at once.  I should have planned ahead for my post this week – had something powerful waiting in the wings – but I’ve been buying school supplies and tidying syllabi, closing down summer, and planning last hurrays.  This week I fought with my computer and lost.  I broke up the last of the backseat fistfights and moved into a new office.  I love going back to school – I love school supplies and new students and un-sharpened pencils.  New semesters look hopeful and open on my white desk calendar. But I’m tired and overwhelmed.  I already miss my little boys and the long evenings we enjoyed without homework or bedtime. I know that my school brain is somewhere waiting for me, but I can’t seem to find any extra words to describe that crazy combination of excitement and anxiety that comes with a new school year. But I need words – from somewhere – to ease the sharp edges of chaos.

Hiding from the calendar…


Earlier this summer, some friends asked me to be godmother to their infant son.  We gathered for a quiet, outdoor ceremony in the mountains near our homes.  We stood in the rain and read to the baby from our favorite books.  My husband and I chose a short poem written by a friend and an excerpt from Kahlil Gibran’s book  The Prophet.   My copy of “On Children” is dirty and frayed; before it was  tacked to my refrigerator, it hung in both my mother’s and my grandmother’s kitchens.

All week Gibran’s words have played through my head.   They are familiar.  They corner my chaos and moderate my need for control.   They could be applied to parenting, or growing up.

Or they could be a reminder to teachers going back to work.

On Children

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

 You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His    arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;

 For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

–          Kahil Gibran

Will I miss this? – S




We’re Not Done Yet…

Sometimes I hate social media.  I have learned that serious and planned cyber sabbaticals keep me sane. I was on the verge of throwing it all out last week when I fell headlong into a serious debate on Facebook.  It is easy to isolate ourselves in the cyber world, to cultivate a space of opinions and ideas that only confirm our own well considered prejudices.   My first cyber space conflict tested my convictions and my compassion, but social media redeemed itself, at least for now.

She and I have always been political polar opposites. We could probably never agree on a church service or a meal time prayer.  We listen to different newscasts, read different blogs, and will raise our boys to know different faiths.  We are strong women and good friends.  And I could not ignore her Facebook post about the end of the women’s movement because a long time ago I made feminism my armor.  I have taught my grown brothers to announce – out loud and whenever possible – that they are feminists.  My own young boys know feminists who are doctors, lawyers, business owners, teachers, and stay at home parents.  They have been taught that families make different choices and that feminism is about making sure women have the opportunity to make choices.  So my friend’s short post about the “phony feminist fight” surrounding the economics of birth control brought me to my proverbial feminine knees.

I was upset.  To me the debate reeks of sexism and misogyny.  The objection to a mandate that requires insurance companies to cover birth control options is ludicrous. Not to mention that the objections come from politicians who simultaneously sexualize women and insist that our calls for access to birth control are some kind of promiscuous promise.  But my girlfriend sees it differently.  She worries that we are being played.  She sees greedy politicians attempting to buy the female vote with feminist rhetoric and hollow promises.  I worry that she might be right.

I will always be a feminist and I will hold on to the power of the women’s movement.  To me this means hard work. It is diligent outreach to ensure that women have the occasion to make our own choices.  Without access to birth control, we have few other choices.  I will be loud, and at times angry, about wage gaps and sexual politics and the still intact glass ceiling. I feel obligated to alter the conversation, to suggest that we reconsider old habits, and to point out inadequacies in language and practice that still leave women feeling isolated and marginalized.  We cannot afford to forget how much more we have to gain.

Something strange happened after I posted a snarky, not-so-subtle status update in response to my friend.  The instant power of social media started a conversation.  My friend sent me a private and apologetic message.  She was first concerned with our longtime friendship.  Then she worked hard to explain herself. She does think that the women’s movement is over, or at least irrevocably altered.  She admits to being cynical and she is convinced that women will never be able to unite around a single, universal goal. But she also wants women to work at whatever they are “called to do” and she has made room for loud, convicted women like me.  She pointed out that there will be “thousands upon thousands of women, both and young and old, waking up tomorrow with big ideas” and access to powerful tools like the internet.

With enough patience, it may be a space well suited for an honest conversation and debate.

– S

Confessions of A New Blogger

this blogger's secret weapons

For years I’ve hauled trashy magazines home from the public library under the cover of night.  I hid my stack under Man Booker novels and the kids’ story books.  I’ve read them all – Vogue and Glamour, Lucky, Vanity Fair, InStyle and even UsWeekly.  English instructors read a lot.  We read level one composition papers and creative writing disasters.  We reread short stories from survey Lit anthologies and devour new fiction in hopes that our classrooms will feel edgy and of the moment.  We memorize poetry and pick at education journals.  And I confess, we hide our fashion magazines.

Then about five years ago I discovered my first blog: The Sartorialist. Now I stalk women like Emily at Cupcakes and Cashmere and Erin at Apartment 34.  The content looks like frivolous nonsense, inconsequential banter about neon stripes and handbags.  And mostly it is, but the sites are beautiful and contagious.  And they epitomize effective blogging: make it look good, write often and with enthusiasm, share relevant (and selective) information, tell a compelling story, get to the point.

Reading online is like drinking a raspberry Slurpee without a straw: it’s difficult to get a clear shot at the good stuff without making a mess of the process.  When I’m online I fight myself.  I work to focus on the long and important articles – to get my vitamins – and then I fight to move faster, to get to more stuff.  And I am a sucker for the well-styled, pretty stuff.  A good title and a well-lit shot of shiny food gets me every time.  If there is couture it’s all over – I’ll never get back to the Chronicle of Higher Ed if I can have Jimmy Choo.  Some scholars, like the London School of Economics and Public Policy’s Patrick Dunleavy and the University of Waikato’s Chris Gilson, claim that blogging is “one of the most important things” academics can be doing right now.  They are, of course, referring to academic research and the ability of social media and a well-tended blog to bring cutting edge ideas to the masses.  The fashion world should have such lofty goals.

Blogs bring us the world, sloppy section by sloppy section at a time.  We stumble upon the beautiful and the unusual through a series of unintentional clicks.  Usually we are led by advertisers and clever marketing, but occasionally we float through a world of images and ideas curated by someone we’ll never know.  We surf for experts.  The blogosphere allows, and according to Gilson and Dunleavy in some cases obligates, us to “contribute [our] observations to the wider world.”  It allows us to share ideas, to challenge one another, and to engage in a community.  The potential for greatness is palpable.  User generated content might fuel revolutions and topple dictators.  It may unearth a cultural touchstone or a cautious poet. It might also propel the next tasteless tube-top trend.  The distractions are infinite and terrifying; there is something paradoxically lovely and creepy about stumbling from the economic theory to shoes and nail polish in seconds.

– S

What’s to love?

Valentine’s Day in Wyoming: A Sackett’s Market special

Last year on Valentine’s Day my husband took me out for a meal. We hired a sitter and walked downtown in the cold.  I carried high heels in my bag and changed from sensible snow boots in the restaurant’s glass entryway.  The bar was busy and the restaurant tables were full.   We sipped beers and exchanged gifts.  My husband handed me a velvet jewelry box and I glanced over my shoulder to see who was looking.  I imagined patrons watching us and being sickened by the Valentine’s cheesiness.  I wanted to scream: “We’re not just celebrating this stupid Hallmark holiday; I swear!”  I opened the little box without rolling my eyes and promptly proceeded to lose one of the delicate, purple stones.

Apparently it’s trendy to hate Valentine’s Day.  Wonky celebrities like Ashton Kutcher denounce February 14th and call for “365 days of romance.”  In Massachusetts, haters can buy “break-up banana splits” and “bloody heart pizzas.”  Hollywood’s romantic comedy machine even turned out a feature film called “I Hate Valentine’s Day.”    The Catholic Church removed St. Valentine from the General Calendar in 1969.  Though the true history of the valentine is hazy at best, the celebration of romantic love endures.  At least on some level.

Americans have sent handmade Valentines since the early 18th century and this year we will spend an average of $126.00 on red and pink packages.  The red and pink makes me cringe. I won’t wear heart-shaped jewelry and in my world fuzzy white teddy bears share brain space with waterboarding and Disney World.  But here’s the kicker – I got married on Valentine’s Day.  The date was an unhappy accident (we needed a three day weekend), but it has proven to be a lesson in serendipity.  My husband likes to consider the annual onslaught of sappy sweets his personal anniversary reminder – there is little chance he’ll miss the milestone.   And I have grown to love the irony of celebrating on the most commercial of holidays.

Valentine’s Day highlights the occasional and crazy intersection of popular culture and the human condition.  Once every year, Hallmark promises to make romance simple: chocolates and cards and red balloons.  We want love to be simple and unburdened.  We want romance to be sparkly and to smell like roses.   We work hard at the illusion; buying gifts and convincing ourselves that romantic gestures will make up for time and energy. But in reality it is complicated.

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes that love is good, but difficult.  His collection “Letters to a Young Poet” asserts that “for one human being to love another…is perhaps the most difficult task…the work for which all other work is merely preparation.”  The kind of love that Rilke points to is sometimes hidden, slow to accommodate change, and often frustrating.  It is the dark shadow of romance, reliant on the determined, thinking side of our brains.  Like literature’s romantic irony, this sort of love is more rational than emotional, more about “calculation” than “sentiment,” and on Valentine’s Day this love is quiet and reflective (Handwerk).  It is not teddy bears and chocolate boxes, but rather tears and subtle laughter.  For me, it is children and diapers and commitment.  It is in-laws and Turkey dinner, eulogies and theme parks.  It is the quiet space between wakefulness and deep sleep: the space where you know the sound of dreams and the silence of conflict.  It is endurance and careful consideration.  It is love worth celebrating amid chaos – even amid consumer chaos.

– S