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

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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

Backpacking First-Timer: Dos and Don’ts…

Entering the Cloud Peak Wilderness on my first solo backpacking trip.

Entering the Cloud Peak Wilderness on my first solo backpacking trip.

Weighing 280+ pounds, several years ago, I took my first backpacking trip up into the Big Horn Mountains. I went with my husband, and I remember an unrelenting trail. I fell backwards once and needed help getting up like a bug who could not turn itself over. We never made it to our original destination, Big Stull Lake–a regret I had until this year.

This summer, 100+ pounds lighter, I took the same backpacking trip; this time solo but not without my trusty dog, Nikko. My destination was 3.7 miles to Coney Lake with a short stop at Big Stull Lake. Things didn’t quite go the way I had planned, so I thought I would share some of the lessons I learned on my first solo backpacking trip.

#1 Don’t overestimate the amount you can carry. Chances are when you’re hiking, you aren’t going to need a lot of clothing. One pair of shorts, one short sleeve shirt, one long sleeve shirt, rain gear, thermals, and a jacket for high elevations is probably enough. On my first backpacking trip, I ended up with too many clothes and as a result, I could barely lift my backpack. At one point, I tripped on a tiny stump in the middle of the trail and ended up face first in the dirt. With a smaller pack, I could have kept my balance.

#2 Do pack and repack. If I had followed this simple rule, I would have realized I didn’t need 6 pairs of underwear, three shirts, and two jackets for my two-night backpacking trip. Repacking and packing can help you stick to the minimum requirements as well as give you practice packing. Make sure to try on your backpack so you’re not stuck with a too-heavy bag when you get to the trailhead, and it’s always a good idea to consult an expert about what you should or should not bring.

Stull Lake Campsite#3 Do know where you’re going, and have a contingency plan. Experts say not to hike alone, but I knew the trail, I let people know where I was going, and I had a contingency plan. I planned my trip based on the previous hike my husband and I had taken years ago. We had not planned well, so we found ourselves stuck searching for a camping spot in the dark during a thunder storm. It turned into a pleasant camping trip, but without good luck, it could have been a disaster. On this solo trip, I planned ahead and had a contingency plan. I wanted to make it 3.7 miles to Coney Lake with a short stop at Stull Lake, 1.6 miles from the trailhead. I ended up staying at Stull Lake and hiking on to Coney Lake the next day without my pack. I would not have made it through the steep, rocky switchbacks with my super heavy pack. Instead, I had an easy hike and more “me time” next to quiet Stull Lake.

#4 Don’t forget the mole skin. No matter how much you think you’ve broken in your new hiking boots, there is always a chance of chafing. I put several miles on my hiking boots before this trip, but the rocky terrain and up- and down-hill hiking took its toll on my feet. Thankfully, I had mole skin in my first-aid kit, and I managed to cover the hot spots before they developed into giant blisters.

#5 Do pack water shoes or sandals. I was grateful to have my water shoes. They had nice traction for walking in the lake and on the lakeside trail, and they are nice to have if you have to ford any deep creeks. Luckily, my hike was in late summer, so the creeks were dry enough to expose rocks for crossing. Look for shoes that can be easily attached with a carabineer to the outside of your pack, and pick shoes that are light…again, refer to Rule #1.

#6 Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t think you’re going fast or far enough. Yes, there are hard-core hikers out there who count their miles, and you may or may not cover as much ground. Who cares! It’s about your ability and about taking time out for you. Take time to relax and enjoy the scenery. Focusing too much on your speed or the miles you’ve covered can leave you forgetting why you wanted to backpack in the first place. Remember that it’s not a race. If you plan your time accordingly, you won’t have to rush to the campsite and you can take time for breaks, pictures, and bird watching.

Most of all, be proud of what you accomplished. So what if someone else went farther or faster. The point is that you got outside, you had fun, and you experienced something new.

Happy Hiking!

~ K

Stull Lake

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