Just a Piece of Paper

IMG_4828When I moved to Tucson to attend the University of Arizona, my life was planned: I would go to college, get published, get married at 25, have 3 children, and homeschool my children while living in the forests of Alaska. But life didn’t work out that way.

Twenty-one years later, with two college degrees, no children, and living in Wyoming, not Alaska, I finally got married.

And although there were some fairy-tale aspects of my wedding (the hummingbird that hovered over us as we said our vows, marrying where I always dreamed, in Sedona, Arizona, a man who wanted to marry me despite a cancer diagnosis six weeks before), getting there had been anything but a fairy tale.

My husband and I met on Homecoming Day in 1999. We were introduced by a mutual friend at a party that I wasn’t even supposed to attend. My date had stood me up, and so I found myself at the party instead of the football game.

Three years later, we were living together. Eight years later, he proposed. In between those years, we discussed marriage…well…we fought about marriage. I wanted to get married. He didn’t. I thought about leaving, but I couldn’t imagine life without him, and despite the occasional fights and the disappointing jewelry boxes that contained rings for my ears and not my fingers, I stuck with the man. I decided that being with him in a committed relationship without a ring or a piece of paper would be enough. In fact, I had convinced myself that we were already married.

IMG_4953To some degree, that was true: we owned a house together, we had pets, we didn’t go out with other people; we weren’t looking for anything better…we were in a committed relationship. But it wasn’t enough. Over and over again, we argued about that piece of paper, and I found it difficult to define marriage beyond the obvious property and fidelity. Instead, I focused on the ceremony itself. I would argue that we already had a marriage. “I just want a wedding,” I’d say, hoping this would convince him.

I had been planning my wedding for as long as I could remember. As a child, I dressed my stuffed animals in handkerchiefs and tissue paper, marched them up make-believe aisles, and hid them under the bed or in the closet for their honeymoon.

On the occasions we took the 45-minute drive from Flagstaff to Sedona, I dreamt of a big wedding in front of the beautiful red rocks and then gathering with my friends and family for a big celebration.

With every fight about getting married, that dream dwindled, and I would grieve its loss. But I wasn’t willing to find a new relationship. I wasn’t willing to say good-bye to this man I loved…this man whose life I shared. Instead, I conceded and finally said, “Marriage is just a piece of paper.”

When I finally let go of the fairy tale, it became reality. On top of the Big Horn Mountains on a cold, fall day in 2009, this man, who I thought would never propose, knelt in front of me and asked that question I’d been wanting to hear. Of course I said yes, and now, 4 ½ years later, the fairy tale vanquished, I still struggle to define marriage.

There is something to be said for planning a wedding, going through the hassle of the paperwork, the seating chart, juggling family dynamics and finances until that day when you stand in front of your family and friends and say those words: “in sickness and in health.” Saying those vows…all of them…makes a difference. It matters.

IMG_4906It’s intimacy.

It’s trust.

It’s learning to listen to each other as you struggle daily to remain true to your identity while also navigating through the day-to-day difficulties of life with and without your spouse.

It’s about coming home to someone who knows who you are and, yet, doesn’t understand you, but is willing to keep working at it.

It’s about compromise and communication and doing the work…and still…it’s about so much more than that.

It’s just…I don’t know…more than a “piece of paper,” and still difficult to define, but it’s worth the effort.

~ K

 

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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

Are You Small Town or Big City?

NewYorkCityOn July 31st, at 2:00 AM, I sat in a 24-hour deli having breakfast in downtown Manhattan.

Some people would consider this unwise, but I was amazed at how safe I felt. In fact, after finishing my coffee and yogurt, I walked to Times Square with my mother’s voice repeating in my head, “Nice girls aren’t out after 10.”

I have always been a night person, but I rarely go outside that late because of the supposed dangers lurking in the shadows. I have also always considered myself a small-town girl, and I never thought I would feel comfortable in a city like Manhattan. I expected to be intimidated, self conscious, and hurried. Instead, I was energized, fearless, and confident.

As I sat in the deli, I realized that I could get used to the city life. I could imagine living there writing, walking at night, and loving the fast-paced lifestyle during the day. The other side of me–the side that loves the solitude of the wilderness, fishing, hiking, and just listening to the birds–wonders how long it would take before I would need to escape the city environment.

Despite the fact that I live in a small town, I’m not exactly a hick. I have lived in and visited urban neighborhoods before. In fact, I had been to New York before. I have also lived in Tucson, Arizona, a city of 520,000+, for over 6 years. I also lived in Lincoln, NE, not quite as big as Tucson, but still bigger than Sheridan, Wyoming. I’ve also visited Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Stockholm, London, and Paris. In Paris, my traveling companion refused to be outside after dark. Maybe that’s good practice, but I longed to see the Eiffel Tower lit up after dark. I wasn’t brave enough then to venture out on my own.

This trip to New York was my first experience in a large metropolis alone, so I was completely shocked with how comfortable I felt as I walked down 7th Avenue towards Times Square. Several people were around…men and women dressed in various styles. There were police officers, city workers, and even some homeless people out and about. I did get some strange looks…it was probably completely obvious that I was not a New Yorker…but for the most part, people left me alone, and I felt completely comfortable.

I didn’t have much time once I got to Times Square. I had to catch the airport shuttle at 3:30AM, and I still needed to check out, so I hustled back to the hotel completely energized and not really wanting to go home.

Today, back in Sheridan, I feel out of place. I tried walking at midnight in my neighborhood, but I was uncomfortable and frightened. Without really understanding why, I rushed back to the comfort of home. (It’s possible I realized internally what this study found.)

I don’t really know what to do with myself now. I suppose I’ll settle back into my “normal” life in Sheridan, and New York will be a distant memory. Until then, I have realized that no matter how much I think I know myself, I should remain open to new experiences and new places…because who knows, I may find that I’m a city girl after all.

~K

Spring Fever

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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

Failure?

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.

~K