Pulling Myself Together

Well here is one of those crazy months that has a fifth Sunday! So I’m going to take a moment to reflect on writing this blog and to pull myself together into one person, rather than separating myself into three different parts.

When I started this blog, I set up the whole thing to examine the three different parts of myself (nerd, adventurer, and old-lady-hobbit). I wanted to acknowledge that those three parts of myself could exist together in the same person, and to examine how they strengthened and complimented each other. Sometimes I feel pressure to choose one part of myself over the others, and this blog was a bit of a rebellion against that.

Adventurer seems to play a role in most of the confusion I get from other people. It seems to me that being a hobbit doesn’t make me less of an adventurer, and being an adventurer doesn’t make me less content with being a hobbit.

When I go to the yarn store and get advice from the lovely older women there, I am fully immersed in my old-lady-hobbit self. We chat about tea and cable stitches, debate metal versus wooden needles. But when I mention I’m going to go for a hike with some scrambling up big rocks before sitting down with my new yarn and needles, I am met with consternation. Perhaps it’s because these women have all been mothers, but their first response is usually along the lines of safety. Am I going alone? Does someone know where I’m going? Do I carry a first aid kit? These are all good questions! (And the answers are usually “yes,” “of course,” and “it’s freshly stocked.”)

Eventually, though, these kind ladies let me go on my way, smiling about youth and our boundless energy. I don’t mind becoming an adventurer in front of my hobbit friends so much. But going the other way, from adventurer to hobbit, seems a bit different to me.

When I grew up, I spent the vast majority of my time with kids who adventured. We skied, we biked, we ran through the woods. My childhood mantra was “keep up.” Popularity was based on the latest craziest thing you did. Everyone was constantly trying to prove themselves. Now, I never was the craziest, not by a long shot. But I was usually good enough to keep up. I also (unknowingly at the time) earned respect because I was smart. Even though some of my friends didn’t get why I cared so much about school, they appreciated the fact that I worked hard and was successful. In their eyes, it wasn’t so different than training hard and being successful on the hill.

But though many of my adventurer friends understood, at least in part, my nerdiness, my hobbit-ness seemed just plain weird. Why would I want to sit inside and read a book when there were adventures to be had? Being a hobbit seems, in some ways, flat out contradictory to the idea of YOLO (you only live once…it’s sort of a modern reincarnation of “carpe diem” for those who are unfamiliar). And as I worked my way through college and tried to meet new people, I was always scared of presenting myself as a hobbit. I was (and sometimes still am) worried that it will make me seem weak, unambitious, or generally lame.

I need both my adventurous nature and my hobbit. Both give me energy in different ways. Both teach me different things. I deeply appreciate both the travel-itch wanderlust that surfaces frequently in my heart and the deep roots I have in Colorado. Being an adventurer gives me the strength to share myself and to learn new things, and being a hobbit gives me the strength to know myself.

Of course, I don’t mean to leave out my nerdiness. But as I pointed out, there are some similarities between mental and physical achievement; both require hard work, determination, and patience. There are also similarities between nerdiness and being a hobbit; both can be individual pursuits and neither involves physical daring.

The way I’m writing about these three parts of me make them seem like separate things. Sometimes it’s useful to separate myself out into different parts as a mental exercise; it can help me identify parts of myself or help me remember to take care of myself. But sometimes it’s important to unify myself into one single person. These three parts of me are deeply intertwined with each other. And so I’m going to make a minor change to the structure of my blog to reflect this.

I originally set up my posting schedule like this: the first Sunday of the month was a nerd post, the second Sunday was an adventurer post, and the third Sunday was an old-lady-hobbit post. I left the fourth Sunday of the month as writer’s choice. I’m not going to change this structure much, but I am going to slightly redefine what happens on that fourth Sunday. Rather than a free-for-all writer’s choice, I’m going to post something that highlights how two or more of these identities come together in my life.

If you look back at my previous fourth-Sunday posts, this is very much what I ended up doing anyway, so it shouldn’t feel like a huge shift. However, there is a lot to be said for intentionality. So as I go to choose topics, now I can be more intentional about how I’m representing these three parts of myself. They aren’t three separate things, and I really did start this blog to show how they didn’t have to be three separate things. This structure will allow me to better focus on that idea.

The last thing I have to tell you is the most important. I absolutely love writing this blog. I sometimes write posts in advance of Sunday just because I want to. This is, in part, because I choose to write about thing I enjoy or things I care about. But it’s also because of the conversations you all start with me. So to everyone who was read these and enjoyed them, thank you for sharing that time with me. To everyone who has replied to me, thank you. This has come in the form of phone calls, Skypes, letters, Google docs, comments, likes, and shares. You all make this worth while!

Your homework: Do you see yourself as multiple pieces, or as a unified whole? How does that mindset affect how you talk to yourself and how you present yourself to others?

Hej då,



Passion and Pleasure

I am currently subscribed to an email list called Project Happiness. They come in weekly cycles: Mindful Monday, Grati-Tuesday, Wednesday Wellness, Thoughtful Thursday, Freedom Friday, Social Saturday, and Soul Sunday. I like them because they remind me to make a thoughtful space in the mornings before the day gets crazy.

Last year, on May 1st, I received a really interesting one. It sparked me to write in what I call “thought process” style. I give up completely on grammar and punctuation and just see how many words I can get out at once. Sometimes I do this to get worry or stress down on paper, which helps me move past it. In this case, I wrote because it helps me make connections between disparate ideas, or clarify something that’s been confusing me. I’ve taken my blog post today to revisit two realizations I wrote about then.

This is what the Project Happiness email said:

Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” What if, just for today, you let happiness be the purpose for your existence. For the next 24 hours, embark on the oldest human adventure and dive deep into your inner world today. Whatever makes your soul happy, do that…”

My first response was disappointment. I got this on a Sunday, but I had only been mildly productive the day before (I bought myself a zen coloring book and happily lost about two hours that way) so I was feeling the pressure to knock some things off my to-do list. In particular, I was really behind on some work I needed to do for my Knowles teaching fellowship. There’s no way I can just follow my soul today, I thought. I have too much to do.

Then I wondered if I might be looking at this all wrong. I’ve had, for years, my Bodleian dream. It centers around having a really compelling question, diving deep into books that no one reads anymore, losing myself in our human inheritance of knowledge, creating something from the scraps and pieces and using it to change to the world! This Bodleian dream seems most real in a vast university library, which is why I named it after one of the most famous. (For anyone interested in this language and philosophy, I highly recommend reading Michael Oakeshott. There are, as in any philosophy, major issues, but there is something about it that really calls deeply to me.)

In some ways I felt like I’d missed my opportunity to pursue my Bodleian dream. I’m not a college student anymore, and when I was a college student I squandered my time on personal and relationship issues, on fanfiction, on anything but being a scholar and an academic. For reasons that were unclear to me then, I could not dredge up the motivation in myself to truly pursue this dream of research and learning. I think perhaps it came down to something very simple; I had nothing to research that I was passionate about. This sounds cliché, and I’m going to circle back to this idea of passion in a moment.

Now I do have something I pursue with energy and dedication. Teaching takes over my mind, heart, and soul in compelling, beautiful, and sometimes overwhelming ways. And my Knowles fellowship gives me a chance to dig back into inquiry, reflection, and the practice of asking really good questions. So perhaps that work with Knowles that was sitting on my to-do list actually was what my soul would lead me to. I was getting a second chance at my Bodleian dream. Or at least, a slightly modified version of it.

This thinking led me to my first realization; happiness is not derived solely from pleasure.

I find it pleasurable to read fanfiction and eat chocolate. But I also find these things, especially in conjunction with each other, can be really detrimental to me if I have nothing else happening in my life. There must be other components to happiness, I thought to myself. So I started brainstorming.

I find satisfaction in crossing things off my to-do list. I get fulfillment in digging deeply into content to learn and to then create a lesson plan. I feel great joy in seeing student growth. I feel the most present and alive when my heart is racing and my legs are straining as I push myself up a mountain; sore muscles never fail to make me grin. Chopping vegetables and folding my laundry are fairly mundane tasks, but cooking myself healthy meals and taking care of my things makes me feel like a competent adult.

These things are not pleasurable in the way that fanfiction and chocolate are, but they do contribute to my happiness. Especially in terms of my teaching, I do not work so that I can get time off to do something else. I do my work because I find it necessary and compelling. I am very passionate about my work.

And there it is again. This idea was at the center of my second realization; passion isn’t comfortable.

“Find what you’re passionate about! Pursue your passion!” I hear it all the time when our school does anything related to college or job searches. We tell our students (and ourselves) that if we find what we’re passionate about, we’ll never work a day in our lives. Passion seems to be some magic ingredient to make hard thing easy. I don’t think that’s true. At all. I think passion allows us to continue in spite of the hardness.

Teaching is hard. (That’s absolutely my desk at school one day last year in the picture at the top!) There are a lot of pieces that go into making a functional classroom and school; if you’re curious about what a day in my life as a teacher looks like I wrote this article for a friend’s project about understanding other people’s jobs. [Note – he’s redoing his website at the moment, so you can read the Google doc version for now. I’ll update this link when he gets his site back up!]

Though the list of responsibilities I have as a teacher is long, that’s not the hardest part of teaching. I currently have 172 students on my rosters. That’s 172 individual human beings with thoughts, feelings, and needs. That 172 different stories. Sometimes those stories are incredibly triumphant, and sometimes those stories absolutely break my heart. There are days when caring for my students takes every last drop of energy I have, and then demands more. I’ve had more mornings than I care to admit to where my alarm went off and I had to force myself out of bed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cried for my students.

But I do get up. I dig around in myself and I find more energy and compassion than I thought I had. I push myself to revise a good lesson to make it awesome, to give students that extra bit of feedback, to let my own nerdy excitement for biology take over even when I’m exhausted. Yes, teaching is hard. But my passion drives me through that.

Passion isn’t comfortable. There are days I find myself wishing I wasn’t passionate about teaching. There are a million things I could do that would be easier. In fact, almost anything would be easier. Because if I wasn’t passionate about it, I wouldn’t care so much. I wouldn’t feel compelled to give so much. But when I really think about it, I wouldn’t trade it. Not for anything.

Just as pleasure isn’t the only component of happiness, I don’t think passion is either. Without moments of pleasure and joy, without fulfillment, passion can drive a person into exhaustion. As with so many parts of life, there is a balance. And that, dear readers, is a third realization I’ve only now just had, in writing this to you.

I finished my thought process writing last May with this thought, and I still really like it. I wrote:

“So I am going to follow my soul today, but not by following just my limbic system. And it might not be the most pleasurable thing I’ve ever done, but it will be beautiful and bring me happiness in other ways.”

Your homework this time is a single question, but it’s likely going to be a complicated answer! What relationships do you see between the ideas of happiness, joy, pleasure, fulfillment, passion, and satisfaction?

Hej då,


The Art of Letter Writing

I’ve been on a kick with Pride and Prejudice lately. I like the 2005 film (especially the soundtrack), I love the book, and there’s also a YouTube series called the Lizzie Bennett Diaries that I really enjoy. One thing I noticed this time about the series was that every dramatic moment is caused by the delivery of a letter.

I don’t know very many people who send letters any more. I understand why, to be sure. We have instant communication! We can write and send instantly with email (or on several hundred different other internet platforms). We can transmit our voices across the entire globe. Seriously, this week I talked with my parents, who were in Hawaii. That’s a really long way away from Colorado! Do you know how long it takes to get a letter to Hawaii?! And that’s not even counting technologies like Skype, which allow video too. When I lived in Sweden, Mom would set her laptop on the kitchen counter where I normally sit when I’m home, and it felt strange that I couldn’t smell what she was cooking.

But I also write letters, and I love it. There is something really special about sitting down with a letter, some blank paper, and my favorite pen. I love flipping up the flag on the mailbox, or sliding the envelope through the slot at the post office. And most of all, I love coming home to find a letter for me.

I started writing letters with my friend Andrew. Andrew and I received the same scholarship and were in the same major, so we had a lot of classes together our freshman year of college. We both loved science, football, and stayed up late on several occasions having the kind of philosophical conversations that tend to be associated with collegiality. During my sophomore and junior year, Andrew went on his mission to El Salvador, and only had letter-based communication. It was about three or four months between letters, but it allowed us to know each others’ stories well enough that when he came back, we weren’t strangers.

When Andrew came back, we were in really different classes and didn’t have any automatic reason to hang out. We didn’t talk for nearly a year! I realized that we’d been in more continuous contact when he’d been half a continent away than when he was in the same town as me. So we resumed writing letters to each other. Since then, Andrew has gotten married, moved to North Carolina, started medical school, and had a completely adorable son. And throughout it all, our letters have gone back and forth.

For my friendship with Andrew, letter-writing is exactly the right pace of communication. It doesn’t have the pressure of crafting an instant response, because I know that a letter won’t get back to him right away anyway. I can save up the best parts of the last month or so and send those to him. Our friendship is based on our mutual interest in science and helping people, and writing letters allows us to keep knowing each others’ stories even though we again live far apart.

I am fortunate to have lots of amazing friends from all over the world. In my very first blog post I mentioned Anna and Louise, who both live in Sweden. I have friends who are currently residing in Germany, England, South Carolina, San Francisco, and Vail. (Of course, some of those are farther away than others.) I’ve had some really wonderful adventures going to visit these people. But I have had to work really hard on learning how to maintain these friendships even though we rarely see each other. Louise and I keep in touch mostly on Facebook or with Snapchat. With some friends I rely more on Skype, some on email. One friend and I talk almost exclusively on the phone. But for Andrew and I, letters have been the best.

Of all the methods of communication we have available to us, I still think writing letters is a special one. I treasure the time someone spent to hunt up the paper and pen, stamp and envelope. I can save letters – I still have every single one Andrew sent me from El Salvador, colorful stamps and all. One afternoon when he was in town we spread them all out and laughed at all the silly things we’d forgotten about. Andrew and I both write in pen, and it means we can see each others’ thinking as we cross things out and draw arrows back to other ideas.

Letters allow for a depth that sometimes technology doesn’t. Texting can be a great method of communication for some things, but it also limits what can be conveyed because of the enforced brevity. For me, even an email can feel rushed because I know someone on the other end wants a quick reply. But when I write a letter, sometimes it can take me a whole week to get it done. I’ll write a story for ten minutes, and then get distracted with something else and come back later to finish it or add something else I remembered.

In our age of technology, everything can be instant. I think it’s important that we consider the pace at which we do things. Sometimes having something quickly is the best. Sometimes a series of short messages is best too! But sometimes that can be overwhelming or stressful, and a slower pace works better. It took me a long time to learn how to best communicate with each of my far-away friends, and for some of them I’m still trying to figure out the best way to keep in touch.

Your homework today is two-part! I have some questions for you: how do you communicate most effectively? Is it different for different people? What does the pace or style of that communication say about the relationship you have with that person? And the second part is a challenge; write a letter to someone, and see what happens!

Hej då,


Taking Intellectual Risk

I was lucky to have my mom be both my biology and AP Biology teacher when I was in high school. In these two years, she passed on to me not only her love of biology, but also her love of teaching (although I hadn’t realized that part yet). Besides our hours-long conversation about enzymes while cooking dinner, or the many tears I shed trying to sort out chromosomes, chromatin, chromatids, and all the other parts of mitosis and meiosis, my mom tried very hard to teach me about what it means to be a scholar.

Mom told us all (repeatedly) that there were two kinds of people who sat in her desks at Steamboat Springs High School. There were students, and there were scholars. Students could go through all the motions of being in school and be successful: do all the homework, pay attention in class, get good grades. But these students never really engaged in the process of learning and never gained great understanding. Scholars, on the other hand, made connections across scale and content. They revised their own understanding, asked thoughtful questions, and reflected on their knowledge or lack thereof. Scholars built true, lasting understanding.

I understood most of this. I loved the idea of being a scholar. There is a difference in purpose and intention and a difference in engagement. But Mom also always added one other thing to her “qualities of a scholar” speech that I didn’t understand at all. She always told me that a scholar was willing to take intellectual risks.

I’ve asked her, multiple times, what that meant. She’s expanded it to include sharing thinking and asking questions, but none of these things felt particularly risky to me. Learning was awesome. How was it risky?

I have to explain to you, without sounding arrogant hopefully, that I was very, very good at high school. I am a quick reader, and I tend to remember things easily. I am good at seeing patterns. After one disastrous year in 7th grade where Mom had to make me a “Turn In Today” folder, I was reasonably good at staying organized and remembering deadlines. I have always been a good test-taker.

I also see more and more how very supported I was, which also made high school very easy for me. This was true at home, where I had both parents to help me with homework, and at school, where I had several amazing friends who were also academically talented. Even outside of my friends, I was comfortable with my classmates. There were 122 kids in my graduating class, and by the time we got to high school most everyone had accepted who was smart and who was athletic. Quite a few of my classmates demonstrated that you could be both, and I was never bullied because I was smart. Looking back now, it makes sense that school never felt risky to me. It never was.

Then I went to college, and I met several new challenges. I was, for the first time, among a lot of people who were faster readers, better at memorizing, and harder workers than I was. I was among people I’d never met before, who judged me based on my major before they realized I could ski. And I met one of my least favorite classes of all time: Honors Chemistry 1.

That class was risky for me. On the very first exam, I received a 32%. I never asked questions. I avoided my homework until the last minute. I didn’t talk to my friends in that class because they were brand-new friends and I was afraid they would laugh at me. I had no idea how to struggle and not feel completely worthless.

But even then I didn’t realize that I was disengaged because of the risk I felt. I thought it was just that hard, that maybe I’d met the limits of my intelligence. (Fixed mindset, anyone?)

I didn’t understand intellectual risk until I started teaching. I am constantly judging my kids’ responses and behaviors in order to figure out what they understand and how to help them. And I started to notice the kids who had amazing thoughtful answers written down but never said anything in class. Or, a converse example, the kids who could have incredible conversations with their classmates but refused to pick up a pencil.

Failing and struggling are real fears. And for some of my students, succeeding is the real fear. Maybe they don’t know their classmates. Maybe they’ve been called a nerd. Maybe they’re afraid their contribution is wrong, or isn’t good enough. Maybe they’re afraid Awesome Student from two desks over will say something better.

I’ve lately found myself in these places. I’m part of a teaching fellowship called the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation that is absolutely incredible. But many times in group discussions with the other fellows, I find myself hesitating to speak up because I don’t want them to think I’m an idiot. I also don’t want them to think I’m an overachiever. I’m afraid to take intellectual risk.

So now that I understand what intellectual risk is, I have a new question. How do I encourage it? How do I encourage it in myself, and how do I encourage it in my students? I guess this week I have homework too!

Your homework: Have you ever felt like you’ve taken an intellectual risk? What motivated you to take it?

Hej då,


New Year’s Tradition

For a lot of people, New Years is a very different holiday than Christmas. If Christmas is a lot about family, the New Years is about friends. People get together to stay up late, drink champagne, and maybe get that New Year’s kiss.

This never worked out very well for me. I’ve been to two New Year’s parties, ever. One involved moonlight sledding in high school, which was admittedly awesome. The other involved a group of people adopting me into their friendship and it was also pretty fun. But every other year, I ended up on the couch next to my mom, celebrating East Coast time with the ball drop, and feeling mildly discontent with the fact that I didn’t fit into society’s recommended New Year’s plan.

I look back at that girl with sympathy, of course – it’s never fun to feel even mildly rejected and left out – but also some amusement. I think New Year’s was the only time I ever even wanted that moment. I don’t like staying up late. I don’t like loud music.  It wasn’t so much the experience that I wanted, but the invitation.

So four or five years ago, I completely rejected the whole idea, and my mom and I started a different tradition. We go to bed at our normal hour (between 9 and 10pm), get up early, hike to the top of something facing east, and watch the sun come up.

I love starting the new year with a good night’s sleep and the sun on my face. I love feeling my muscles working and my heart beating and the rush of hot blood in my cold fingers. I love looking down on my still-sleeping town and feeling my love for the mountains. It makes me feel alive and ready to do anything.

If you’re going to do a sunrise hike, the end of December and the beginning of January is a good time to do it. Sunrise is, after all, close to 7:30am. Sunrise hikes in July mean getting up a lot earlier! But a lot of people forget that winter hiking is a thing we can do. It’s cold and icy and dark. But let me share a Scandinavian saying that is my dad’s favorite quote:

There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.

I laugh every time I hear it. Hiking in the winter can be one of the most amazing experiences ever – it’s quiet, there are fewer people, frost and snow are beautiful, and all of the things that are awesome about being outside are still awesome. That being said, winter hiking can be downright miserable without the right gear.

The trick with hiking, in any weather really, is to dress in layers. It’s no fun to be too hot on the way up, only to freeze in your own sweat on the way down. Staying dry is key to staying warm. This morning when I hiked up, for example, I wore my wonderfully fleecy long underwear bottoms and a medium-weight long underwear top. I also wear a headband because I hate it when my ears get cold. Depending on the weather, sometimes I put my rain jacket on over my long underwear. If it’s windy or precipitating, being wind and waterproof is a good call. It seemed weird at first to wear my rain jacket in the winter; I like it because it doesn’t insulate on the climb up, and then I can put warm things under it.

In my backpack I carried a stocking cap, mittens, sweater, and puffy vest. And yes, I wore all of this at one point. I do not like to get cold, and today in particular I knew I was going to spend a while sitting on an exposed rock watching the sun come up. One mistake I used to make a lot was waiting until I got cold to start adding layers at the top. Now the first thing I do, even as I’m catching my breath, is start pulling on layers. Today was windy at the top, so I also immediately traded my headband for my hat and pulled my hood up. I sat on my rock for over a half hour and stayed warm! Success.

For the hike back down I put my puffy vest back in my backpack but left my sweater on. I also ditched the hat part way down since the sun was shining brightly. By the time I got back to the bottom, I was ready to be back in just my long underwear top again. It can seem obnoxious to carry extra clothing, but it’s better to have it than to get cold three miles from your car. Layering for the win.

The other gear to pay attention to is footwear. This can get exciting in winter hiking. I wear the same hiking boots I wear in the summer, which are waterproof, but I also carry Yak Tracks in my backpack. Today they were fairly useless; the trail was either dry or glaze ice, which is too hard for Yak Tracks. But they do come in really handy on packed snow. I don’t have anything more serious than Yak Tracks, but if your hike requires crampons, you’ll need a bit more gear and know-how than your average winter day hike anyway.

Today was not supremely cold or snowy, but other things I consider and use if the weather is right are some kind of water proof pants (either rain pants or snow pants, depending on the temperature and the intensity of hiking) and gaiters. These are sort of like extra bottoms for your pants that hook under your boots so you don’t get snow down your ankles. I got dark magenta gaiters for Christmas last year and I LOVE them. I wear them to shovel the driveway if we have enough snow.

The trick with gear is that is has to be yours. I don’t mean you have to own it; I definitely stole (and returned!) my dad’s favorite shell over Christmas break to go hiking with my mom. But you do have to know your gear and understand how warm it will keep you. This morning, I looked at my thermometer and saw it was 25 degrees (F) out. I know that for me, that does not require snow or rain pants. But I could already hear the wind, so I tucked my hat in my backpack just in case (and boy was I glad I had it). Practice is the best way to figure this out. Take an extra-big backpack full of layers, go for a short hike and see how warm (or cold) you get. Or, if you’re really lucky, get your mom, dad, or strong handsome younger brother (I’m looking at you, Jeff!) to carry your extra layers as you figure it out.

There will be days where you blow it; the weather will change half way through, your new fleece will be way warmer than you thought, or the blue sky will deceive you into thinking it’s warmer than it actually is. I’ve done all of these things. I’ve also made it halfway up the hill only to realize I only had one mitten. We live and we learn.

I also would be completely remiss if I didn’t say thank you to my family, who has given me most of my winter gear for Christmas or birthday presents. Mom, Dad, and Jeff know me well enough that they pick out exactly the right stuff, year after year. Thanks for making my adventures possible!

The best thing about that Scandinavian saying is that it opens up the whole outside during the winter. It puts my enjoyment squarely in my control. It is incredibly satisfying to be warm while it’s cold outside; it makes me feel skilled and knowledgeable about my gear, and also just like I win. And there is no better feeling than the first warm touch of the sun after an hour of chilly hiking.

The first year Mom and I did a New Year’s hike, it was twenty below and my breath frosted on my eyelashes until they were white and twice as long as normal. I looked like a demented ice fairy! It was still an amazing hike. We did it in our marshmallow puffy jackets, to be sure. But it’s worth it to greet the new year from the top of a mountain, watching the sun light my home anew.

Your homework: What is your favorite piece of gear? Have you ever rejected a tradition and created your own? How do you greet the new year?

Hej då,