January 1 is the traditional date to begin new things. It might as well be any other day of the year. Calendars are not set in nature; they are conventions, like temperature scales and currency. When the sun rises tomorrow, it will be another day. I may do with it whatever I wish without dooming myself to any particular course of action. Every day is re-creation. Every year brings 365 sunrises and as many chances to try something new, to be something new. The only failure is not to take a chance, to remain stuck where we find ourselves.
I once bought one of those blank books, a red leather one, to use as a journal. For a long time I debated about what I ought to write on the first page. There were so many pages; it would take a long time to get to the final one. The first entry ought to be significant, I thought -- nothing mundane. It ought to set the stage for all the weighty and important thoughts I would record there. The problem was, I couldn't think of anything profound to write. My life was pretty dull. Ultimately, the book stayed blank.
I admire the minimalist life. So much of the stuff I own almost seems to own me. It wouldn't be so bad if all the things I have accumulated represented money well spent, time wisely invested. Mostly, though, they are evidence of impulsive spending, a what-the-hell attitude. That's what bothers me the most. I think, what could I have accomplished by now if I hadn't been obsessed with buying things? Some possessions quietly do their jobs and don't make me feel guilty, but many of them require too much thinking. Good ideas are free.
January is the grimmest month. It's dark in the morning, it's dark when I come home, and when the sun is up, the light it gives off is sort of grayish. All this was true two weeks ago as well, but the coming holidays gave it all a different feel. Snowflakes made me hear Christmas carols. These are the most depressing days of the year. By February we'll be buried again; the snow will be gray and dirty. The days will be a bit longer, and light will return. I'll think of spring, look forward to walking in the park.
I grew up in Wisconsin, where snow lasts from November through May. In our album, there are many Easter pictures showing me, posed against a snowbank background, wearing my Easter bonnet and 'church coat.' In Wisconsin, a coat becomes more than an article of clothing; it is an adjunct to one's personality. We get snow where I live now, somewhat south of Wisconsin, and we certainly have a lot more snow days. Though I didn't walk miles in the snow to reach my school when I was young, I don't remember snow days. School was always open.
Another year goes by and I'm still not sure who I am. You would think I'd have figured it out by now, but it is a perennial quest. Do plants wonder about this? Once I dreamed that I was a plant, a potted plant. My roots were turning in on themselves, twisting into a large hairy clump. I still feel that way sometimes. Plants do not have daring thoughts. We may think about the sky, the wind, but we don't really want to move. Our thoughts creep downwards, deep, into darkness. Our imaginations stretch towards the light.
It's Doughnut Day! I have always maintained that Friday is its own reward and doesn't require doughnuts to make it special, but when I woke up this morning, I thought of doughnuts - chocolate donuts with chocolate frosting. It's been a long week. I still think that Tuesday is a good candidate for Doughnut Day; the relaxed weekend mode is gone, and it's not yet half way through the week. Tuesday is the longest day of the week, the day when it's too soon to think about next weekend, but we've already forgotten last weekend.
I have a very hard time believing that pop-up ads earn any money, but they must. Why else would they be so plentiful? Though there are plenty of people who do annoying things just for the thrill of annoying someone (i.e. ninth graders), I can't think that advertisers fall into that category; they are only interested in selling things. So why are there so many of these annoying things? Are there really people who see a pop-up and think, "Wow, what a great deal! I'm going to click this right now and buy a whole bunch of them."
I've wasted the last four hours. I did a number of useful things, but none of them fill me with a sense of accomplishment -- looking up things on the internet, organizing files, collecting ideas for lesson plans. I get a lot of 'stuff' done, but I lack the focused attention that makes time disappear. Does anyone focus on just one thing any more? Or do we all just surf around, our attention occasionally caught by something, but only for a moment? In this unfocused, mesmerized state, I lose track of time, but the result is a passive emptiness.
Notice: this will be one of those "I can't believe time keeps moving forward" posts.
Tomorrow is my younger son's birthday, twenty-four years old.
I was twenty-four once. By then, I was already married; his older brother a distant thought. I had always pictured myself as a parent, but until my two sons were born, it was very difficult to understand what that might mean.
With my second son, I was an experienced parent, able to handle colic and terrible twos.
Happy Birthday, son. I won't embarrass you by pulling out the baby photos.
My mind is blank; I have no thoughts. I feel like nothing. I have nothing to say. I could talk about something but that would only be filling up space. I don't really feel like writing, but I promised myself I would, so I write. I tell my creative writing students to just write, not to worry about what they write or whether it makes sense. I tell them to keep writing, "I love shoes" until they are inspired to write something more profound. It's hard, not knowing what to say. It makes me think I'm boring. Perhaps I am.
Information is been my addiction. I could spend hours on the internet, just looking stuff up. When I was born, information was mainly found in books, which take up space and are often kept in libraries. As a child, I would sit in the stacks, reading a book, wishing I could take them all home. Now information is less dear; I don't have to work for it. If I ask the internet a question, someone has already asked it, and another person has answered. But when it's in print, information always feels truer. I like the smell of paper, ink.
In my family, anger was frowned upon. Nobody got mad about it, but there was advice: "Count to ten before you get mad." That's the last thing you want to hear when you feel like punching your sister. Next to last thing you want to hear: "Apologize to her." But we all grow up, learn patience. As an adult, I don't anger easily. I can shrug things off without much stress. Maybe it's not a good thing, but calm is how I've turned out. Count to ten? No, but taking a step backwards often makes a situation better.
It's well into January, but my Christmas tree is still standing; it's not a real one, just one made of metal, plastic, no smell. A compromise, a way to avoid standing in the cold, choosing an imperfect tree. Why is it so much fun to put up a tree, such a chore to take it down? The dishes are still sitting out, the tablecloth needs to be washed, all the cookies are eaten, but the snow is deep, and winter will be long. The sun rises a few minutes earlier each day. What little magic my tree had is gone.
Go ahead -- despise me. Everyone else does. I am a grammarian.
People assume that I am here to make them feel small and uneducated, to remind them that Grammar is Bigger than You are and if you think you can make your own rules, Think Again.
Actually, there are only a few things that set my teeth on edge. One of them is things that dangle. Like you, my patience is short for people who don't notice such things. Did you catch that?
Other teeth-grinding constructions: Adverbially speaking, I dislike adverbs. They inevitably, interminably set my teeth on edge.
I've written fifteen entries, and I still can't figure out what 100 words is good for. What can you turn over and examine in 100 words? I can easily write 500 words, or 900, but this little paragraph makes me mute. So short, it should be profound, I think. I have written several dozen opening sentences to Something Important, but none of them goes anywhere. Maybe I'm trying too hard. Should I describe my day, the highlights? Write a poem? I tell my students: just write. But this small block of words is the hardest task I've faced.
Logically, we should want to hear the worst, to fix things when we've messed up. In reality, we stop up out ears and sing loudly, or crumble our failure into a small wad and toss it away. Adults are the same as kids; none of us want to know that we've failed; it destroys our pleasant, guilt-free fantasy. I'm sure this is why change is so hard. I don't think it's because most of us are lazy; it's just that we cherish an illusion of our selves. We diligently maintain it. Which makes you work harder- success or failure?
I measure my days by things I can check off: papers graded, recorded, copies made, lessons planned. There are days when it feels pretty good to have made it to the bottom of the list. Tomorrow - another list. It's hard to feel that I've really accomplished anything when the list just fills up again and again. It's like laundry; unless we figure out how to stop wearing clothes, there will always be things to wash, dry, hang up, fold, put in drawers. So, if nothing I do ever stays done, what can I bank as an achievement? Idea: stop counting.
I am a believer in consequences. Punishment, I'm less enthusiastic about. Today I stayed after school to mind a few kids who came late to class. Will sitting in the cafeteria for two hours after school cure them of their tardiness? I don't believe it will. I believe that there are basically two kinds of people; those who hate being tardy, and those who don't see why it's such a big deal to wander in ten minutes late. Can making them waste two hours cure them? Not a chance. A cure for the promptness-challenged? I think it's incurable, terminal.
Snow has been falling all day. It was light for most of the morning, but now it's quite thick and the roads are very slippery. I nearly had a wreck on the way home. That's the part of winter I hate - not the snow, but the driving. At school, not much learning goes on when they can see snowflakes through the window. Endless conversation about whether there will be school tomorrow. Most after school activities have been called off. If they don't cancel school tomorrow, not much education will happen. Everyone will be sulking about having to go to school.
"Snow" is a beautiful word. Though it represents merely a frozen form of precipitation, it is much more. Covering the land, it softens and brightens the view, lending a picturesque quaintness to even the urban landscape.
A "day" is a worthy measure of time, full of potential. Its hours can be filled with useful activities as well as recreative ones.
When these two words, "snow" and "day" are combined, something mysterious, nearly poetic transpires: the "Snow Day" -- a surge of fleeting joy, an unexpected gift of time, a sudden liberation from dull routine.
Carpe diem, my fellow teachers.
If the world has to end in either fire or ice, I would choose ice. As long as we stay inside with plenty of cocoa and wool socks, we could survive. For a while. Eventually we'd have to go to the store, and expose ourselves to the elements. I like cold weather. As long as I'm wearing enough clothing, I'm happy. It's not so much fun waiting for a tow truck or chipping ice off my car windows, but I like the way the world feels in the winter. People seem nicer when it's cold. Bad weather creates camaraderie.
Yesterday I found a box of journals in my closet, some over thirty years old. I haven't kept a paper journal for years, so it was like finding a box of scrolls. I flipped through the oldest ones; interesting, but not compelling. I haven't changed much. I still set goals, make lists, and obsess about my life. No hidden gems of wisdom, surprising flashes of insight. Disappointing. Perhaps I'll scan or transcribe them, not because they need to be saved for posterity, but because they are my words. Will anyone besides me ever read them? I hope not.
A friend sent me a thoughtful message - one of those posts that gets forwarded and forwarded until nobody knows who started it. I appreciated her sending it -- until I got to the end. "Send this to five people within 96 hours and your good fortune will increase." I hate chain letters. For a moment, I thought: "I know five people who would enjoy reading this." Then I thought: "If I do it this one time, I'll have to do it every time." That's the nature of superstitions: they must be obeyed without exception. I made my choice. No chain letters.
Today we had five cruisers and three mounted police at our school because there was a riot at lunch. My opinion: once kids are old enough to cause riots, have babies, and refuse to do any work at all, they are old enough to ship out into the work force. No more compulsory education! If we didn't have to spend all our time and energy on problem children, we could focus on the ones who want to learn and prepare them for college. Keeping kids who cause riots in school isn't helping anyone. We ought to find another way.
I'm old enough to not care what other people think of me or worry about whether I'm meeting their expectations. There's a sense of freedom that comes with realizing that I'm finally an adult (about time!). I have experience, perspective, and know what I want. At the same time, being able to do whatever I feel like isn't really freedom. Am I free because I allow myself to eat as many M&Ms as I want without guilt? That's just self-indulgence. Real freedom is about options, which are won through self-control. Excess is a kind of slavery.
'Should' is a very destructive word. Every time I say "I should..." or "I shouldn't..." I feel bad. Eliminating it from my vocabulary might make me much happier.
'Should' is just a notch below 'try,' which is worth practically nothing. As Yoda says, "Do, or do not. There is no 'try.'"
A word of judgment: You should have...
A word of disappointment: I should have... if only...
How many times a day do I say 'should'? How much of my life is wasted on 'should'?
'Could' is a more hopeful word. Even better: 'can' or 'will.'
It's an experiment.
I have concluded that the internet is sucking up my brain. Or at least my focus. When I have my laptop open, I think I'm going to write, but I end up looking things up instead. Research. Click on links. More links. What was I doing? Writing?
Hence the experiment: I found a notebook and a pen, ancient artifacts of my writing efforts. The plan: close the laptop, write with a pen in my hand, moving across the paper. Have I forgotten how to spell? No matter; I will write 500 words a day.
I've never truly understood free verse - poetry that doesn't rhyme, has no meter, and often seems more like prose broken into short lines. In my untutored opinion, that kind of 'verse' blurs the boundary between poetry and prose, and ends up being neither. Or something entirely else. I'm not saying I don't like it; I just wish I could figure out the rules. How can one poem be called great, another scorned as mediocre? My few attempts are mostly underwhelming. I suspect that everyone else is just as confused about this; we secretly prefer poems that bounce, that rhyme.