Every Stitch

Today I’m writing from yet another state! I’m currently sitting outside of Penn Valley, California, at my friend Hannah’s childhood home. She grew up on a glorious five-acre property, with huge trees and vegetable gardens and a little orchard and chickens. This part of California is the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, but it’s really different than the foothills in Colorado. At home, the the transition from flat to mountains is fairly abrupt. Here, I’m nestled into rolling hills of pine forests and farms. I think I found the Shire.

And when I found Hannah, I absolutely found a hobbit! Hannah grew up doing three-week backpacking trips with her family and close friends, packing all their extra food and supplies on horses. She wanders around barefoot almost all the time, and she bakes the best pumpkin butterscotch chocolate chip cookies you’ll ever have. We met in college in our leadership program, and I can easily say she’s one of my best girlfriends in the entire world. We’ve stayed up late giggling and singing, hiked and hugged trees and swam in rivers, and had some of the most honest conversations I’ve ever been a part of.

The first time I came to her home was for spring break during our freshman year of college. She took me cross country skiing to a cabin that some of her family friends built by hand (no power tools!), and then she took me on my very first backpacking trip at Point Reyes. I loved both of these adventures, but what I remember most about that trip was how included and loved I felt with her family. It’s been a happy place ever since in my memory.

This time, I’m back for Hannah’s wedding, and I could not be more honored and delighted and totally overwhelmed by how much love there was, not only at the ceremony last night, but as I’ve been here helping for the last several days. Hannah’s family is deeply intertwined in this community, and people demonstrated such an incredible amount of support, creating decorations and food and moving tables and chairs around in 100+ degree heat. I’ve been crashing at her house, and I’ve had so much fun painting signs and chopping veggies for appetizers at the rehearsal dinner, and carrying anything. I’ve met Hannah’s friends from all different parts of her life and reunited with some of our college friends. In the midst of everything, Hannah still carved out two hours to pick me up from the airport and to chat with me about my life and what we’ve been thinking about lately.

Another good example of the love here: Hannah and her (now husband!!!!!!!) Ben decided to opt for a less-traditional wedding theme and combine Star Wars and Lord of the Rings into a fantasy land of awesomeness. Everyone showed up in costume, including her grandfather in the Leia buns and dress. My costume experienced a bit of a setback when the green dress I wanted to be an elf archer didn’t come on time, so I rushed to grab a back up plan. What I ended up wearing consisted of my mom’s cowboy boots, Hannah’s sister’s socks, a brand new friend’s white tunic, Hannah’s dad’s bow and a pair of earrings I stole from Hannah herself years ago. Only my brown leggings, camisole, quiver and arm guards were actually mine! People gave freely and without thinking about it, and I wasn’t even the person of interest.

Yesterday, the day of the wedding, we all headed to the ranch where it was going to take place and set things up for several hours. At 11:30, we headed off grab lunch and go to one of Hannah’s favorite places: the Yuba river. After a (SUPER HOT) short hike, we jumped in the water for a bit and then ran back to the wedding site. Supposed to be back by two-thirty for celebrations starting at 4? Definitely arrived at 3:20. But Hannah has collected the kind of friends who a) will jump in a river and not worry about their hair and b) can totally handle getting ready for a wedding, in less than an hour, with only one bathroom between eleven girls. We had a blast braiding hair and gluing elf ears, and watching Hannah transform from hiking river girl to absolutely stunning bride. This is the kind of girly-ness I really do love.

The ceremony itself was beautiful and multi-part and incorporated lots of Jewish rituals (my knowledge of Yiddish had probably quadrupled in the last three days). I won’t try to explain it all, but I will tell you it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced. All the cliché things people say about weddings, the radiant bride, the crying mothers, the perfect light…all of it was true last night. I cried through both ceremonies and afterwards when I got to tell Hannah how much I loved her. I danced until I had blisters and laughed harder than I have in a very long time. And after we cleaned up, we all lost our heads a bit and ended up paddling around in the pool on the property, most of us still in our dresses and costumes!

I like to write. I love stories and words. But how could I ever begin to explain how much my friendship with Hannah means to me? How could I describe how much I loved coming home with her and experiencing her community? How could I possibly capture this weekend?

I didn’t even try. At least, not in words.

A year ago, when Hannah called me to tell me she got engaged, I knit two nine inch by nine inch squares out of some left-over turquoise yarn in a basket weave pattern. And over the course of this last year, I’ve (very sporadically) worked on creating 46 more squares and sewing them together to create a blanket. There were months where I forgot about it, and a lot of frantic knitting and sewing in these last couple of weeks! (I actually finished it here, on the floor of Hannah’s guest room.)

When I knit, every stitch is a good wish, a thank you, and a promise. They’re little tiny good thoughts, but they add up. And I thought it was a nice metaphor for building a life together. It’s a series of small things.

And when I knit, I don’t do it in isolation. Mom taught me how to make cable patterns. Granny helped me lay out all the blocks so the colors were balanced. The whole thing is a work of love. And it’s a way for me to say it without fumbling around with words and clichés.

My friends are so incredibly important to me. Hannah’s given me more sunshine and support than I thought possible.

Your homework today is very similar to some other homework I’ve given before, but I think it’s worth doing twice. How do you show your people you love them? Try to find a way to demonstrate that this week!

Hej då,

Jamie

Creativity and Community

My friends laugh at me when I remind them I’m a hobbit. They know it’s true. I like to stay at home. I don’t like crowds or meeting new people. Sometimes I find myself thinking I just don’t like people in general. This year in particular, however, has made it clear that I do, in fact like people. I’m a teacher, after all. And in my hobbit-ness, I especially like my people.

I wrote a little bit about this in my post about having breakfast with my family. I enjoy the things I enjoy more when I’m doing them with people I love. I like sharing the experience in the moment and reflecting on the shared memories later. And I think this is more true in creativity than I originally thought.

See, when I think about a creative genius I think about someone pouring over a manuscript or music score for hours, forgetting to eat or sleep or generally about the outside world. I think about an inventor in a lab or a baker elbow-deep in flour. But without a community, creativity is like shouting at a mountain. All you get is your echo.

My friend Matt made this especially clear when he wrote me about creativity. Matt is a Knowles Fellow who teaches math in Washington state. We were going back and forth about things we’d stopped doing when we started teaching, and we both mentioned music. I played the flute in middle school band and I took piano lessons through high school. I still have my flute, but a piano is a bit harder to move. I miss practicing and playing and the occasional composing I did. Here’s what Matt had to say:

I miss playing music. I played viola. The other day though I got my hands on a piano and was missing around and really want to get in touch with that part of me again. Especially playing in an orchestra or group. I would always be overwhelmed after a performance thinking, ‘Man. We just made that. We just made music.’ It’s…hard to explain. But I got to feel like I was a part of something great. I miss making things!”

I think he nailed it. One of my favorite parts of middle school band was the feeling that I was a part of something. We were making something way bigger than any one of us could make on our own. I liked imagining I was weaving the sound of my flute into a tapestry that was made of all the sounds of all the instruments.

Once Matt got me thinking about this, I started wondering about my other forms of creativity. One thing I love to do creatively is bake. I like the flour, the way it smells as it’s in the oven. And I also really like sharing my baked goods. (Seriously, any potentially sticky meeting you have? Bring brownies. Or snicker doodles. It is automatically better.) I like making huge batches of things so my people and I can enjoy them together. So baking is also very much a community creative thing for me.

I also like to write. Writing especially seemed individual when I started thinking about it. And it’s true to some extent; the initial act of writing is fairly solitary. But grab the nearest book to hand, and look at the acknowledgements. Depending on the author and type of book, it might be a list of a handful of names or it might be three pages long. Revision and editing is a process that takes a lot of people.

And at its heart, writing is about communicating. It’s about joining a larger conversation about what it means to be human. I’m nerding out a little bit here, but I really think that’s the heart of literature. Reading is a passive way to participate, but writing is actively contributing. That conversation evolves over time and across culture, but there are similarities in every story.

One of the reasons I started writing fanfiction was because I wanted to participate in the conversation. I love the Harry Potter series. I may or may not have broken the bindings of three of my books because I read them so often. And when I found a place where people were joining that conversation, I was delighted. And I wanted to join in too! So I did. I started writing. And more than that, I started getting feedback on my writing. I made friends with some of the other people who write. One person, Gerry, was my beta for my last story. (A beta is like an editor; they read your chapter before you put it up and give you feedback for revisions.) It was incredible to have someone to have a conversation with about my writing. I learned so much about writing styles and language and characterization from this process!

And, like all good thoughts, I took this one to my mom. When I told her I was pleased with myself for figuring out that writing was totally about community, she laughed at me a little bit. She pointed out that I had formatted this blog in such a way as to encourage interaction. After all, don’t I give you all homework? I want to start conversations!

So…yeah, Mom’s always right. I’m definitely ok with this.

I really do believe that being part of something bigger than myself is really important for my sense of purpose and happiness in my life. It’s part of why I love teaching. It’s why yoga class is better than yoga at home. And it is a huge part of what inspired me to start this blog.

This fall I attended the National Association of Biology Teachers annual conference. I got to see some of my Knowles friends, meet a lot of amazing people, and in general get inspired by how many absolutely incredible biology teachers there are. And I decided I wanted to be a part of it. All of it. I wanted to reach out and look for opportunities. I wanted to participate in the conversation.

Sometimes sharing my creative “masterpieces” is scary. When I create something, it’s directly a piece of my heart. But without the sharing, I think the creativity is seriously diminished.

So my homework for you: How do you participate in the human conversation? What is your creative community?

Hej då,

Jamie

Blondie Birthday Breakfast

Two days ago, when my colleagues and I were swapping plans for what we were going to do this weekend, I quite honestly felt like I had the best plans of all. This morning I got to have breakfast with my ENTIRE family. Mom, Dad, Jeff and I met in Golden and spent three hours chatting and laughing and generally just enjoying hanging out together.

This doesn’t happen as often as I would like. Jeff likes to go adventuring in the mountains and he’s almost always planning his next escapade. Dad and Mom both travel for work, and in fact they had just gotten off a red-eye flight home from Hawaii. But I’m especially glad it worked out this weekend, because it’s the blondie birthday weekend!

Jeff’s birthday was on Friday, and Mom’s birthday is today. Dad and I both have dark hair, so we tease them about being the blondies together. It’s always great fun to have two celebrations in a row (we never combined them, and Dad always made sure we had something fun for Mom even though she was focused on Jeff).

Today wasn’t anything massive or elaborate. We just met up and had breakfast. Mom and Dad had brought Jeff a new pair of flip flops and some macadamia nuts from Hawaii. I got their opinions on their gifts (and now I need to order them). But in some ways, that’s what made it so special. I am incredibly grateful that my family still takes the time to get together and just hang out.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes me happy. One thing I’ve realized is that all of the things I enjoy, whether camping or knitting or nerding out about something, are more fun when I have someone to share them with. I enjoy practicing yoga the most at my weekly Tuesday classes because I love the teacher, Maggie. I like knitting at my granny’s house while she’s quilting because we can talk about our projects together. I like sharing my favorite hiking trails with someone who will also appreciate the beauty.

This has been an interesting realization in some ways. As a general statement, I don’t always like people. Interacting requires energy and people can be loud. I don’t like loud things. But I care very deeply about my people.

I realized this in part because of a silly ice-breaker at the Knowles Spring Meeting. One of the questions was about what super power I would choose, and I chose Apparition without hesitating. (For those who are not obsessively acquainted with Harry Potter, that’s a lot like teleportation. It’s the power to disappear and reappear in a different place.) Later, one of my friends asked me why I chose that super power. I didn’t have to think very hard about my reply. If I could Apparate, I could be with my people more often and more easily than is currently possible.

I’ve written a bit before about how I value my friends, even though we’re scattered all over the place. If you need a refresher, I currently have (at least somewhat) regular communication with two friends in Europe, three on the East Coast, two in Colorado, one in Utah, and one on the West Coast. This has taught me a lot about the value of different styles of communicating, and it means I really treasure the time I have with these people.

I spent quite a lot of time growing up pushing myself to be strong and independent. Traveling to ski races meant learning how to take care of myself. And I’m really glad I did learn how to do this. But I’m also starting to realize that this does not devalue how much I care about my people.

And my family is even more powerfully close to my heart. My parents taught my brother and I how to be adventurous and nerdy and caring. We took all of our vacations from school together. Last summer we took a super secret surprise vacation together to celebrate Jeff’s graduation from college. This meant that Mom and Dad didn’t tell us where we were going; they gave us dates and a packing list and told us when to show up to the airport. This is not the first super secret surprise, nor will it be the last!

I could tell you stories for days and days about why and how I love my family and what I’ve learned from them. I could tell you about how Jeff drags me out from under piles of papers when I’m way too stressed and tosses a Frisbee with me, or how he stealthily packed all the really heavy stuff in his pack the last time we went backpacking because I had just come back from three weeks at sea level and was struggling. Two weeks ago he made me chicken enchiladas and chocolate chip cookies, both of which are Mom classics, and we sat at my dining room table for hours listening to Eric Clapton and talking about life. I felt like I was at home.

I could tell you about how Mom taught me how to make a to-do list and work my way through it when I feel overwhelmed, or about the three-hour long conversations we have about teaching. She taught me how to name wildflowers, swim, ask good questions, bake, make jam, and start a campfire with one match. It’s still a work in progress, but she gave me the beginnings of The Teacher Look that can freeze any student in their tracks.

I could tell you about how Dad is comfortable in any situation and can talk to anyone. He can go from climbing through vents following wires to gracefully handling business receptions. He taught me how to pack my backpack for officiating a ski race, and that any bike ride you came home from bloody was a good ride (although I think he might have been covering for the fact that it took him a while to learn how to get out of his clip-less pedals!). He taught me how to keep track of details, to anticipate the next thing coming, and to take away excuses in order to get projects done.

This morning our conversations ranged from ski racing rules to Jeff’s upcoming trip to China. I told a story about my third block anatomy class and Mom told one about how she and Dad made friends with a native Hawaiian who taught Mom how to weave fishing nets. Three hours later, we were still talking and laughing. On the surface, it wasn’t anything complicated. Breakfast with the family. But in its simplicity is also its total awesomeness.

So happy birthday, blondies. Thanks for getting up way earlier than you normally would have on a Sunday morning (Jeff) and for stalling the three hour drive back to Steamboat after a seven-hour red-eye flight (Mom and Dad). I’m lucky to have you all.

Your homework: Who are your people? Take five minutes (or an hour) and tell one (or six) of them how much you love them.

Hej då,

Jamie