30 December 2013

The Sanity Lap

I’m not sure when the building I teach in was built, but it was probably during the 1960’s.  It’s a depressing institutional structure, with almost no natural light, especially in the interior corridors where my classroom is located.  Students report feeling the presence of Dementors in the building, and I honestly am not surprised, as I’ve sensed them myself.  It’s not a beautiful place to be, but we teachers try to make the best of it by painting our classrooms with cheery colors.  Nothing quite makes up for dim fluorescent lighting and general lack of interesting architecture, though.

This summer, when my friend and colleague, Lauren, realized that we shared a common prep period, she suggested that we walk a lap each day at the beginning of that class period.  We’ve since dubbed this short walk the Sanity Lap.  It takes place daily, unless there’s a downpour (which is generally unlikely).  We make our way outside, descend the stadium steps to the track and walk one lap, climb the steps and re-enter the building.  The entire trip takes probably no more than five minutes, from classroom door to classroom door.  We are leaving the track just as Boys PE is coming outside for their warm-up lap. 

There are some days when I wonder if those five minutes could be better used if I were grading or planning or organizing or photocopying or contacting parents or the myriad other things we teachers try to accomplish during the fifty-five minutes we’re without students.  But after a semester’s worth of laps, I can definitively say that the time spent on the lap pays greater dividends than the time it takes.  I have a daily opportunity to talk with an adult (and one who is wise and witty to boot), which can be a rare occurrence during the school day.  I spend a few moments outdoors, which restores my soul, and I inhale clean mountain air, rather than the stuffy re-circulated air in the building.  Just before we descend the steps to the track, I breathe in the distinctive view of Thumb Butte and the Bradshaw Mountains south of town.  I can discern if the sky is clear or cloudy or somewhere in between, having arrived at school before the sun is fully up during most of the year.  I connect with a friend, if only for a few moments.

Some days one teacher or another joins us, but usually it’s just the two of us, ranting, venting and laughing.  It’s often the best five minutes in the workday, leaving me refreshed and ready to tackle the challenges of the rest of the day.  The Sanity Lap has made me more productive and gives me focus.  I look forward to it each day.  It costs me only a tiny investment in time, but the pay-off is huge.  I’ve been reflecting on the year, as most of us do in December, and taking stock of habits I want to continue and change.  This one is a definite keeper.  As you reflect on the opportunities a new year brings, and the practices and rituals you want to establish, I hope that you will find something both as cost-effective and priceless as the Sanity Lap. 

22 December 2013

Light and Darkness on the Solstice

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.  – John Lennon

The past couple weeks I’ve been receiving mail, not the electronic kind, which is great in its own way, but real mail.  There is something so lovely about finding an envelope in my mailbox, addressed by a familiar hand, and posted with an actual stamp.  I’ve been welcoming some of these each day lately, with stories and photographs of people I love tucked inside.  I treasure each and every one of them, but  I wanted to share a couple of them with you.

There’s one letter each year that Dan and I especially anticipate.  It’s written by a woman who was in the hydrology program with Dan at U of A.  She’s smart as a whip and definitely one of the funniest holiday letter authors in North America – quite possibly the world, as I assume that the holiday form letter is a distinctively American tradition.

In these letters, she relates the same family news and events as most of us are likely to share, but the way she approaches even the most mundane of life’s events (like potty training) and household disasters (flooded basement followed by ice storm) seem like sitcom fodder.  Really, really good sitcom fodder.  What a gift it is to receive letter laughter each year from across the country.  It always makes me reframe how I might view similar events in my life with a more humorous perspective.

This year we received one Christmas letter in particular that was so courageous in its honesty.  One of my dear relatives has vascular dementia, which has caused her to lose much memory and language.  I haven’t seen her in several years, but I remember her as a vibrant, intelligent woman and a great storyteller with an infectious laugh.  Trained as a nurse, she worked for decades in orthopedic medicine. 

Like most holiday letters, this one from her spouse relayed the goings-on of the past twelve months and the accomplishments of their children and grandchildren.  It was also upfront about the challenges they now face on a daily basis.  But there wasn’t a shred of self-pity or woe.  The letter closed with beautiful words that brilliantly reflect the essence of my grandmother’s maxim:  bloom where you are planted.  In spite of unforeseen health issues (and honestly, how many health issues are foreseen?), they have changed their outlook to consider the realities of their lives, adjusting their expectations to mirror a much different retirement than originally anticipated.  

There are no guarantees in this life.  Each of our lives is marked by minor and major tragedies as unique, and yet as ordinary, as each of us.  We can choose to wallow in the injustice, and indeed, many do.  Or we can shine.  As MLK put it, “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”  It is up to each of us how we choose to react.  In fact, our reaction is perhaps the only thing we can truly control in this life.    May the coming year fill you with light and love and laughter, and a desire to savor each day’s abundance.  Carpe diem, just like the old poets said.