How to Define Success

When I was an undergraduate student at CU, I was fortunate to be part of the President’s Leadership Class. This was a four year program that we described as having three parts; it was a series of classes, a scholarship, and a community. Through the classwork and other associated requirements, we earned a certificate in leadership and invaluable relationship with our peers.

In the first two and a half years of my undergraduate career, I had an intense and somewhat rocky relationship with the program. I was surrounded by incredibly brilliant and talented people, and I wasn’t sure how I fit in or how to stand out. I felt crippled by the incredibly high expectations the program placed on me, and overwhelmed by the workload and the successes of the people around me.

During my spring semester of my junior year, I studied abroad in Sweden and for six months, I hardly talked to anyone in the US except for my immediate family. I took several classes, but mostly I wandered a lot up and down the Fyris river and spent a lot of time thinking. That separation was crucial in many ways.

At the end of that time, I returned to PLC and was a TA for the first year classes. This was, by far, my favorite year of my undergraduate career. I aced biochemistry (along with the rest of my classes), kept school in perspective, and had a wonderful time living at Holly House with my friends. I am immensely proud of the work I did with the first year team and what I learned in my final year as a PLCer.

Interesting story, you say. But why am I revisiting it tonight?

I just finished an interview with a first-year PLC student who is creating a yearbook of past and present PLCers. Since my mom was also in PLC, the program director wanted to feature the two of us as a generational story. And in that interview, Jenna asked me a really excellent question. She asked me, “How do you define success?”

I had to think for a moment before I answered that one, and in some ways I’m not sure I answered her at all. But the very short version of what I told her was that I had to define success for myself, rather than defining it by others’ expectations of me.

The long version included telling her the story that I just told you, about my overwhelmed-ness with trying to live up to being in PLC and a Boettcher scholar, taking space, and coming back with an entirely new attitude. When I came back to Boulder that year, I decided I was going to Take Back Boulder. (Really, it had nothing to do with Boulder; it had to do with classes and school and my priorities. But Boulder sounds better.) I set stringent boundaries for PLC; I didn’t live with other PLCers and I was extremely cautious about letting PLC in my house. I didn’t talk about it, work on it, or have PLCers over except in very non-PLC settings. I defined my own goals for biochemistry and my other classes. I had goals outside of school for my social life and health that I prioritized over homework, sometimes. And, with the support of the people of Holly House, I met all of my goals.

In doing this, I also met a lot of the other expectations of success for other people. Aced classes, good projects, family dinner for Holly people once a week: these things all happened. But they didn’t happen because other people expected them. They happened because I decided I wanted them to.

Defining success is about defining expectations. When I answered Jenna, I didn’t tell her how I defined success. In some ways, that’s very dependent on the situation. And sometimes it’s really important to consider other people’s expectations. But I did tell her that it was super important for me to define success, rather than letting other people do it for me.

Hooray! Success story! I learned a cool thing and now my life is awesome!

Except…not quite.

As I was telling all of this to Jenna, I realized that I had completely forgotten this lesson when I became a teacher. There are a lot of perceptions of teachers, ranging from incompetents in a failing system to saviors of American culture. With all of this comes a lot of expectations about pulling long hours at school, doing lots of grading, what lessons should look like, how students should behave and how much they should learn…the list of expectations is endless. And it’s literally impossible to meet them all; but despite that, I try. And I burn out, and I get exhausted, and I keep trying, and it’s really quite terrible for me.

So. I have some major homework and thinking to do, courtesy once again of PLC. How do I regain control of how define success as a teacher? How do I lay aside everyone else’s expectations and live up only to my own? How do I use my expectations to set boundaries so I can be an excellent teacher in the classroom and also a real human when I get home?

Good questions. But the good thing is that I know I figured it once. It was in a different setting at a different time in my life, but I think I can figure it out again.

Your homework is the same homework Jenna gave me. How do you define success?

Hej då,

Jamie

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Harry Potter and Different Kinds of Fear

Well, it’s been a very long time since I’ve written you anything about Harry Potter, despite my proclaimed love for his story. I will admit, I’ve recently gotten sucked into Anne of Green Gables fanfiction, which has been revitalized by Netflix’s release of Anne with an E. I didn’t make it through the first episode – it was a little dark and a little too different for me – but I digress. As much as I love Anne (and I really, really do) there is still something special about the wizarding world.

When I first wrote about Harry Potter (over a year ago!) I mentioned that I got to take a college class (yes, a real class, for credit and everything) about Harry Potter. One of the things we focused on when we read book three was fear. I’d like to share some of those thoughts with you today.

**Do I really need to put a spoilers warning here? I’m going to anyway, just in case.**

(Plot summary for those who need a refresher: Harry spends his summer trying to be good in order to get the Dursleys to sign his permission slip for him to go to Hogsmeade, the wizarding village near Hogwarts. This ends disastrously when Harry loses his temper and inflates his Aunt Marge. He runs from home and ends up spending the rest of the summer in Diagon Ally, courtesy of the Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge. He learns that Sirius Black has escaped from the wizard prison of Azkaban, where he was serving a life sentence for the betrayal of Lily and James and the murder of Peter Pettigrew and thirteen other Muggles. This escape leads to Dementors, the magical Azkaban guards, being posted around Hogwarts. Remus Lupin, a friend of the Potters and the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, teaches Harry the Patronus charm after Harry finds he is especially badly affected by the Dementors, who suck happiness from all around them. In the midst of all of this, Hagrid is fighting to save a hippogriff named Buckbeak, who slashed Draco Malfoy during Care of Magical Creatures class and is set to be executed. In a twisty ending, Harry, Hermione and Ron meet Sirius and Peter Pettigrew, learn that Peter has been masquerading as Scabbers the rat, and that it was in fact Peter who committed all the crimes attributed to Sirius. Sirius is Harry’s godfather, and for one moment Harry thinks he can leave the Dursleys and have something of a family. Peter escapes, however, and Fudge doesn’t believe anyone who tries to tell him that Sirius in innocent. Harry and Hermione use Hermione’s Time Turner to go back in time to save Buckbeak and free Sirius. Or that’s the gist, anyway.)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a special book in many ways. For the first time, we know more about the generation of witches and wizards before Harry. We get to meet Remus Lupin, werewolf, Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, and one of James Potter’s best friends. We spend the entire book wondering about Sirius Black, and learn the secrets of the castle with the Marauders, only to learn their identities at the end of the book. Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs end up being no less than Remus, Peter Pettigrew, Sirius, and James. Harry identifies incredibly strongly with his father in this book – in Latin, the incantation for a Patronus literally translates to “expect father.”

It’s also the first book where readers gained insight into the fact that JKR had an incredibly detailed master plan. Scabbers, Ron’s pet rat, became a pivotal character. Hagrid’s comment about borrowing Sirius’ bike in the first chapter of Sorcerer’s Stone is suddenly monumental. In the fandom, this book was the one that started the online communities and the explosion of fan theories. If details such as those could become important, what else was hiding in plain sight?

But beyond the generational parallels, which are fascinating, the theme that we spent a lot of time discussing was fear. When Harry runs from Number 4, Privet Drive, he’s nearly crushed by the Knight Bus because he stumbles backwards in fear, thinking he’s seen the Grim. The Grim is a dog, and all those who see one die of fear. Hermione thinks this is preposterous, Ron claims that’s how is Uncle Bilius died, and Trelawney, the professor of Divination (or future-telling) continually uses the symbol to predict Harry’s death.

You also meet Boggarts in this book in the Defense Against the Dark Arts class. Boggarts are shape-shifters that turn into the thing each person fears the most. For Ron, it’s a giant spider. Hermione meets McGonagall, telling her that she’s failed everything. Neville is confronted with Professor Snape. However, Boggarts are easily defeated once a witch or wizard has identified them. The trick is to think of some way to make the feared thing funny and to use laughter (and the incantation Riddikulus, which implies the same thing) to get rid of it. It can also be helpful to confront Boggarts in groups, because the creature gets confused about what to turn in to. Everyone is delighted when Professor Snape appears in Neville’s grandmother’s vulture hat, dress, and large handbag, for example.

I also find it interesting that this is the first book in which we’re introduced to werewolves. Most of wizarding society fears and discriminates against werewolves, but the professor we know in Remus Lupin is the last person who would normally be scary. He becomes Harry’s mentor and first real connection to his parents. Like boggarts, when scary things are placed into the right context, they’re no longer scary.

In contrast with these two examples are the Dementors. JKR has said in interviews that Dementors were directly born out of her experience with depression. Dementors suck happy thoughts and memories from people, feeding on positive emotions. In the presence of a Dementor, people are forced to relive their most awful memories. When left uncontrolled, they can suck the soul from a person. The Dementor’s Kiss is a fascinating alternative to the death sentence in wizarding law. Rather than laughter, a wizard facing a Dementor needs to call upon their strongest joyous memory to fuel the spell.

As part of my class, I wrote an essay about my “Boggart fears” and my “Dementor fears.” Boggart fears are very real, but somewhat silly and overcome-able with support from friends and the right mindset. These are things like how I run from wasps and get nervous before getting evaluated in my classroom. Dementor fears are the things that grip my whole being and paralyze me. For example, feeling out of control of my situation makes me uncomfortable to the point of avoidance and/or tears. Another Dementor fear that used to grip me with incredible power was the fear of being alone. In my loneliest times, it seemed to me that I would always be alone.

Dementor fears aren’t insurmountable. Particularly the fear about being alone has proven to be categorically untrue. (I’m looking at you, dear readers.) The one about control and ambiguity…I’m still working on that one.

The incredibly powerful thing about Harry is that his Boggart is a Dementor. The thing he fears more than anything is being afraid to the point of being powerless.

Your homework: What are some of your Boggart fears? What are some of your Dementor fears? How do you empower yourself in the face of these fears?

Hej då,

Jamie

Finding my Voice

Do you ever get the feeling that advice is pouring in from all sides, most of it well-meaning, some of it bland and general, some of it impossible, and all of it contradictory? Let’s take the almost impossible goal of work-life balance as a teacher:

  • Work, then play.
  • Always take one day a week off.
  • Don’t work at home.
  • Don’t stay too late at school.
  • Get involved in the school community.
  • Make time for yourself.

Everyone seems to have a different opinion, and given the age of social media, everyone can share it. This is true about classroom management strategies, what eating healthy means, how to parent, how to do yoga, what to read or watch, how to be happy…the list goes on.

The hardest part is that usually there is some nugget of truth hidden in the advice. This is especially true when it’s coming from someone I respect, especially when I asked for the advice. I am incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by thoughtful, experienced mentors and friends (and not just in teaching) who are willing to let me talk out what’s troubling me and give me their take.

The end result, sometimes, is that I feel caught in the middle of a whirl-storm, trying to figure out what to do and how to do it. And after all the advice has been heard, wanted or not, I am still the one who gets to make the decision.

Sometimes when I feel like this, I want to just walk away from everything and everyone for a little while, find a rock to sit on top of, and have a conversation with myself. I wish I could spend a whole day sitting quietly, far away, and give myself the time to think. In reality, this isn’t practical. I have a job and a family I love and friends who are marvelous, and maintaining those things takes time. I also know I have the propensity to get stuck in my head and go in circles, and that spending a lot of time by myself aggravates that tendency.

So how do I find my voice? How do I know what I want, and how do I make hard decisions?

And wasn’t your immediate reaction to those questions to want to give me advice? The irony of this is not lost on me.

I often jump to giving advice to my students when really, they want someone to listen. One of my favorite things about my most important people is that they remember to ask if I want a listener or a helper. The trouble, of course, comes in when I don’t know.

My mom likes to tell a story (I vaguely remember this, but I’m sure it’s true) about an argument we had when I was thirteen. I was in tears, and Mom was nearly in tears. She told me that the trouble was she didn’t know whether I wanted her to treat me like an adult or a child, and she felt like she always guessed wrong. I responded back to her, “Well, I don’t know either!”

And so I find myself back at this question: What do I want? And how do I figure that out? Because an answer of “I don’t know” isn’t working anymore.

For the time being, I keep doing what I’m doing. I teach. I do yoga. I go outside. I try to be patient with myself. I watch how I wobble back and forth between feeling things, and try to see which way the wobbles tend to go. As for right now, that’s the only plan I’ve got.

Your homework: Are you the kind of person who can trust your gut? How do you know what makes you happy or is good for you or is truly important to you? How do you find your own voice?

Hej då,

Jamie

 

How to Read

As a child, I spent hours (and hours, and hours and hours,) reading fiction. Anything I could get my hands on, really. I tore through the Laura Ingalls Wilder series in a couple of weeks, the first three Harry Potter books in about a month. In elementary school we had a reading program where you could earn points by taking comprehension quizzes. The longer or more complex the book, the more points it was worth. I vividly (and somewhat bitterly) remember coming in first in my classes every year except for fourth grade, when one of my classmates read the three Lord of the Rings books and sneaked by me.

In middle school I received my one and only detention for reading outside and missing the start of class (by nearly a half hour…whoops!) and my only negative parent teacher conference for reading under my desk. In eighth grade I discovered the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, and I was reading a book a day.

My free-reading was somewhat curtailed in high school, when the school reading assignments became longer and more complex and my ski racing increased. But I still read, and frequently – in the van, while I was supposed to be doing my homework, curled up in front of the fireplace. This dropped off dramatically in college, when I was farther from a public library and had heaps of academic reading.

Academic reading became the bane of my existence. I hated how my mind would wander away and I’d end up rereading the same things over and over. I tried highlighting and taking notes and reading in small chunks and I could not, for the life of me, make nonfiction things stick in my head!

For a girl who usually can recall dozens of characters and plot lines and tiny details of stories, this was incredibly disconcerting. How did I all of a sudden not know how to read? What was I doing wrong?

I was also saddened and disconcerted to realize that biology, which had been my favorite class in high school, was no longer interesting to me. I struggled through my major classes and fumbled lab projects and flailed on exams. I felt like I was drowning in a sea of details I couldn’t keep straight in my head.

Turns out those things were actually related. What I was missing was the story, the connections between ideas.

In a fiction book, there is the main character and everyone is defined, at least in part, by their relationship to that main character. Let’s take Harry Potter for example. He has his best friends Ron and Hermione, his school nemesis Draco, his arch-enemy Voldemort, his mentor Dumbledore, his romantic interest Ginny…everyone can be related to Harry in some way.

And there is  a sequential story line. First, “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number 4, Privet Drive, were proud to say they perfectly normal, thank you very much” and while they were being perfectly normal, they were also quite terrible to their nephew, Harry. Until, of course, Hagrid delivered his letter, which led Harry to Diagon Alley, which led to him meeting Draco and finding Hedwig, which led to his friendship with Ron and the Weasleys on the Hogwarts Express…without one step, the others don’t make sense.

I heard, once, that the writers of South Park storyboard their stories with two transitions. They either use “therefore” or “but” to get from scene to scene. More importantly, they never use “and then” as a transition. “Therefore” implies causality and lets the story line go along it’s original trajectory, while “but” changes the trajectory of the story. “And then” doesn’t give us anything to link to scenes together besides their proximity.

Let’s re-look at the Harry Potter story I told you. Mr. and Mrs. Dursley were horrible to Harry, but Hagrid showed up. Therefore Harry went to Diagon Alley, therefore he met Draco, therefore he was inoculated against Draco’s bullying ways and befriended Ron…the tale goes on from there.

In academic writing, there (typically) is no story line. There is a logic to the writing, for sure. It’s in a particular order for a reason. But I found the best thing I could do when I had academic reading to do was to read the table of contents, read the headings, and create a story. Who were the main characters? How was everyone else related? In lieu of a table of contents, I read headings, read the introduction, looked at pictures, anything I could do to figure out the organization and big ideas. My favorite reading technique became “reverse outlining,” where I would write a one or two phrase summary of every paragraph in the margin. Once I had the outline firmly in place in my head, the details had something to stick to.

It took me years to figure out how to read academic texts. But it’s taken me even longer to properly return to fiction.

Let me be totally clear – I never totally stopped reading. I love to reread, and I peruse the teen lit section every time I go home. I found out about fanfiction and spend hours reading that. But why I read changed. I was reading to search for advice, to avoid the things in my life I didn’t like or didn’t want to do, to give myself an escape. I particularly liked fanfiction because, as writers practiced their craft, few of them were good enough to cause serious emotional waves. Reading fanfiction is pretty safe.

Over the summer I draped myself across the porch swing and devoured a book called The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom. It took me two days, and at the end I didn’t want to close the pages. Three weeks ago I finished reading A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. I laughed. I cried. I cried over the description what cars the man and is best-friend-turned-enemy drove throughout their lives, to be specific. (You know it’s a good book when somehow Backman got me with a litany of Saabs and Volkswagens.) It was so delightfully, subtly Swedish that I felt like I was looking through a window into a country I still miss.

I am slowly rediscovering how incredibly necessary it is for me to immerse myself in other people’s stories just to explore them. I need to be able to connect to stories and characters, and also to tell stories.

Your homework: What are your favorite stories, and why? Also book reccommedations please!

Hej då,

Jamie

Transparency

With a title like transparency, I could be writing about almost anything. I could tell you stories about my colleague David, who still uses his overhead projector to (very effectively) teach biology and AP Environmental Science. We make fun of him constantly, until the day when we need transparencies and wet erase markers and he has everything we need.

I could also be telling you a story about house-cleaning, which is something that makes me oddly happy. Marilyn had the annual window-cleaning done last week, and it makes the whole house sparkle.

But this week, I’m going to tackle something a little bit more, and talk about emotional transparency, honesty and vulnerability.

My mom has told me for as long as I can remember that I am entirely too transparent for my own good. Literally everyone around me knows exactly what I’m feeling because it’s written all over my face. Sometimes this is a good thing; people know I’m genuine and I never surprise anyone with sudden bursts of seemingly random emotions. I’ve been told I wear my heart on my sleeve, I inspire people to tell me their stories, and that my caring is infectious.

I’ve also been told that I’m overemotional, that I care too much, that I’ll be taken advantage of. I’ve been told that I have to be professional, to not let my students so close, to set up some boundaries already. I’ve embarrassed others by the ready emotions that play across my face.

At various times in my life, I’ve tried to learn to hide what I’m feeling. It is unprofessional to over-share. There are people who have taken advantage. Feeling too many things is exhausting. And in one of my early college lectures about leadership ethics, I learned about “emotional flashing,” which is sharing too much too quickly with someone with the desire to make a real connection. The lecturer was a professor of engineering who lived in the honors dorm with his freshmen, and he saw it frequently among his students who were, for the first time usually, displaced from their support systems and trying to find their place in their new worlds.

But despite my many attempts, I remain transparent to those around me. And rather than trying to change that about myself, I think it’s time I embrace it.

In her first TED talk, Brené Brown talked about vulnerability, empathy, and human connection. It was, like emotional flashing, an idea I didn’t really ponder until my freshman year of college. Likely many of you have watched it, or part of it, at some point in your life. I rewatch it on a regular basis because, like many true things, it’s really hard for me to remember. The Cliffs Notes version is that in order to have any true connection, we have to have empathy. And in order to have empathy, we have to be able to be vulnerable. Unless I can show you what’s really going on in my head and in my heart, you won’t be able to show me and we’ll be stuck in this metaphorical walking-past-each-other-wihtout-seeing-each-other forever.

A lot of the time, being so open and honest that it feels brutal is the best thing that can happen in a relationship. Unspoken expectations and half-remembered old hurts spring up at the most inopportune moments and cause all sorts of havoc. I’m always scared to have super honest conversations; I like to think up all the ways the person I’m talking to could react and most of the time I don’t imagine good things. But usually it goes incredibly well. Usually the other person is honored to listen and sees the courage in being vulnerable. Often one person’s vulnerability inspires others to some level of honesty, and the relationship becomes more grounded in reality.

And then there are the painful awful moments where the other person doesn’t reciprocate, or refuses to see the story I’m telling. These are the moments when I share something and I’m told that I’m wrong, that what I’m feeling or thinking isn’t real or isn’t valuable. These are the moments when the other person refuses to see me or hear my story. Or worse, when the other person misinterprets what I said so badly that we end up in a worse place than when we started. Conversations like this have ended multiple friendships in my life. Being transparent in a world of people who don’t have to be can leave me feeling always-on, always exposed, always judged.

But I think those moments are worth it. The friendships that I have are stronger for how honest I’ve been. My relationships with my family are stronger for our ability to talk to each other. In my classroom, my students know when I’m frustrated and trying not to show it, and I find it much more successful to be honest with my kids. So, as I have before in the past, I’m recommitting to accepting my transparency and trying to see it as a benefit rather than a hindrance.

In an effort to be transparent with you all, I think you can tell that I’ve had a hard time posting on Sundays this semester. This is, in part, because I’ve been committed to using my weekends to balance out the overwhelming nerd-ness of being a teacher. This weekend I spent the whole weekend knitting with my mom and Granny, and we went school shopping together (something which happens about every three years). I’ve been hiking and biking and camping and visiting all over, and I’ve loved it. But I always hate getting in to bed on Sunday evening and realizing I didn’t post anything for you all.

In light of this, I’m going to change my official posting day to Mondays. Usually it won’t be Monday before school like this, but after school. So when you’re winding down from whatever your Monday entails, you can come here and read. If you have thoughts about this new schedule, by all means let me know!

Your homework for this week (you didn’t think you were off the hook, did you?): Who do you feel safe being vulnerable with? How transparent are you normally? Do you think that’s a help or a hindrance?

Hej då,

Jamie

On Being Stubborn

Happy first week of August! For a lot of my teacher friends, we’re gearing up to go back to school; the first day for teachers in my district is next Thursday, and students come back the Wednesday after that. If you’re headed back soon, best of luck!

As I say farewell to my summer, I’m thinking a lot about all my wonderful adventures this summer. I got to spend a lot of time hiking, biking, camping, and swimming in mountains all over the western half of the US, more than I have in quite a while. And in doing so, I’m getting reacquainted with a personality trait that can go by many different names. I say I’m stubborn. Tactful people tell me I’m persistent, and my brother sometimes tells me I’m being dumb (he’s usually right).

My whole family can be stubborn at times, including all four of my grandparents! I could tell you stories for days. I learned not only from them, but also from an entire childhood of keeping up. I spent a significant amount of time running around with the kids on my ski team, where the social currency was based on pulling off crazy physical stunts. I was nowhere near as crazy as some of the boys – some of them are lucky they aren’t permanently injured. But whether we were biking, skiing, playing soccer, running, or lifting, the name of the game was to push the edge.

Being stubborn served me very well in my athletic endeavors. It helped me keep going during races and get stronger during training. Even when I had a bad run or a tired day, I knew I had to get up and keep going. I know when I can push my body just a little further and when I’m really at the end of my rope.

But being stubborn isn’t only applicable to athletics. Every once in a while I find it in myself to get stubborn about a class. When I was in college, I struggled in chemistry. Especially my first semester, I took Chem 1 with a very brilliant professor who was not very good at understanding why I didn’t understand. Chem 2 wasn’t really any better. I thoroughly enjoyed organic chemistry, but still found it challenging, and then truly met my nemesis when I took physical chemistry. The last chemistry class I took was biochemistry, and at this point, I had had enough.

I decided that I was – finally – going to get an A in a chemistry class at CU. I did everything I was supposed to do; I read the textbook before I went to lecture. I did all the homework sets. I printed the slides before I went to class and took diligent notes. I drew molecular mechanisms for hours in the engineering center lobby. The more nervous I got about graduation, the more I poured all that energy into that class. Even when I was tired, or my brain felt fried, or I had a million other projects, I pushed through.

I aced that class. It was one of the more satisfying moments of my college career.

But being stubborn is, like many traits, a two-sided coin, and there have definitely been moments when I’ve clung to goals or ideas long past where I should have let them go. When I was twelve, I continued to run on a hyper-extended left knee and compressed the meniscus. When I was eighteen, I partially tore my MCL in the same knee and proceed to race on it all season. My left knee likes to remind me of this with increasing frequency these days, particularly when I’m walking downhill with any kind of heavy pack.

I also find myself doing this in my teaching. I’ll set goals for what I can get done in a day (grade these papers, write this lesson, prep this lab) and I’ll want to stay until I get it all done. What ends up happening is me, staring at the wall, not willing to walk away but too tired to really be thoughtful. I end up wasting time rather than taking a break so I could come back refreshed. This kind of stubborn is not at all helpful.

When I was ski racing I came up with a pain scale to figure out when I could push through and when I needed to slow down and take care of myself. I will fully admit that during both of the left knee incidents I described, I knew I was pushing too hard! And as I got reacquainted with my adventuring this summer, it didn’t take me long to start feeling that out again. I don’t, however, have any kind of related scale for my intellectual and emotional energy. What was it about my situation with biochemistry that helped make me successful, and when do I need to set my grading aside and do something different for a while?

Your homework is simply a more generalized version of the question I asked myself; how do you know when to push yourself and when to take a break?

Hej då,

Jamie

Balance

Well, I am writing to you from yet another state this week! I’m currently in New York City with a girl from my teaching fellowship. Our summer meeting is at the end of the week and I came a few days early to experience the city. I’m sure I’ll write about that next week! But for now, I’m going to come at the idea of balance a little more head on, rather than as an application to other parts of my life. And I’m going to do that through the lens of yoga.

The first time I tried yoga was in high school with my ski team. I remember laughing at the weird names for the poses and generally feeling very silly. I also remember trying crow pose and landing on my face, which was not my favorite thing to do. So I gave up on yoga for quite some time.

In fact, I didn’t try again until the summer of 2013, when I lived in Bocas del Toro. There was an in-house yoga studio three houses down from us, and when the girls and I decided we were curious, we tried it out. Sarah and Amber got bored fairly quickly, but I was hooked. At first I liked the core work and the stretching, which were familiar to me from ski racing. Then I started to like the shoulder strength, which is not something ski racers generally care much about! But what became really important to me were the breathing (not something that should be taken for granted, though I often do!) and the three principles the instructor shared with us.

Laura Kay grounded all of our practices in these three principles. The first was a good attitude. When people walked through the door and nervously mentioned they weren’t very flexible, Laura Kay would ask them to ditch that attitude and instead take up one of optimism and gratitude. The second principle was foundation: having strong legs and good alignment for the safety of all the joints involved. My knees certainly appreciated that one! The third and last principle was about opening the heart to shine our light out. Now, you can interpret that statement any way you like; my favorite way to think about it is how Laura Kay would tell us that smiling was the most advanced form of the pose.

One pose we did frequently in that class was called half moon pose, and it looks like this:

half moon pose

(Thanks to the Creative Commons Search, where I can look for pictures tagged for reuse!)

This can be quite the tricky balancing pose! I’m usually very good at standing on one foot, and I can also bend forward to touch the ground on one foot. But turn it sideways, and life gets a whole lot more exciting! Often I wobbled, or tried to lean too far backwards or reach too high up, and I flailed and fell over. When this happened, I would laugh. And it wasn’t the embarrassed nervous laughter of worrying about being judged; it was a genuine “that probably looked really silly and I’m glad I was pushing my limits” laughter.

When I came home from Bocas, I didn’t practice much for nearly two years. I tried a couple of different studios in Boulder, but they all felt competitive and like I had to push myself to keep up.

Enter Keeli, my freshman college roommate. She’s a ski racer from Winter Park I randomly got placed with our first year, and we’ve been great friends ever since. She’s awesome at spontaneously calling me and dragging me on adventures. One time she did just that and took me to her friend Maggie’s yoga class. Maggie teaches with a non-profit called Grass Roots Yoga in a large-ish classroom at CU. I’ve been going steadily ever since!

I like the mix of people in class – some older, some students – and I actually really like that it’s not in a traditional studio. Especially without mirrors, I feel much less pressure to be a “good yogi” and get into the “perfect” pose. And I especially love Maggie. I love how she offers modifications to change the poses for different bodies and different needs. Some days I need to push myself to be stronger and burn off some energy. Some days I need to chill out a little bit. I even spent the entirety of one class in child’s pose, because that’s what I needed that day.

One of my favorite things that Maggie has taught me is that balance is not a destination to be achieved. Rather, balance is a process that is constantly changing. In yoga, this means that we’re humans, not statues! Instead of trying to achieve stillness, the goal of a balancing pose is to learn to feel the wobbles and ride them.

But yoga advice is usually pretty good off the mat as well, and I think that’s definitely the case for balance. I can’t begin to explain the variety of advice I’ve gotten about work-life balance as a teacher. One mentor told me I should always take Friday night and Saturday completely off from school. Another told me I should make sure I have an hour for self-care every day. Yet another told me not to bother with all this new-age crap, and that I’d feel better if I just got stuff of my to-do list. And I do constantly feel the pressure to do more, be more efficient, and work harder.

This pressure exists in the consistent tasks in my life (grading, anyone?) but also in the one-time pressures. Test proctoring, extra (awesome) professional projects. Piloting a new textbook. Attending a conference. All the hard-and-fast rules I’ve read fall apart in the face of this inconsistency. I’ve been trying to figure out for years how to achieve balance in all of this.

But did you catch my language there? It’s not about achieving anything. The idea that balance is a process can apply to the rest of my life too. It means being observant of what’s going on in my life and how I’m reacting, and knowing how to ride out all the wobbles. I’ll candidly admit I’m quite terrible at this right now, but it seems like a worthwhile thing to practice.

My homework for you: How do you balance the important things in your life? How do you respond to all the varying pressures?

Hej då,

Jamie