Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Travel Notes

40 min trail run 
4 min Tabata plank
45 push ups
3 x 15 weighted step ups
3 x 15 weighted lunges

4 weeks on the road with two kids. So far... 

Routine vs. spontaneity and adventure. Look at the Redwoods or listen to the iPod? Let it go or push it? My way or the highway.

They told Dad about the motel room and the survival show we watched. How long is the hike going to be?Does this campground have a playground? (Never you mind that it exists on the loveliest  stretch of coastline in existence.) Are you done? Can we go back now? Do we have to get out of the van ? STOP IT! Leave me alone! I do not like you.

Then the newts or the crawfish or the salamanders in the stream to catch. The call of "Happy cows!" at the sight of cows grazing a gorgeous green field (they ARE looking out the window). A chorus of improvised "George Washington Bridge" sung over EVERY bridge in the Pacific Northwest in triple-harmony. Crawling through the inside of a tree. Noticing the sounds of birds in the morning. The smiley hello as I first open my eyes, in the morning, in the tent. Morning snuggle time. Croaking frogs. Discovering bats flying above before bed. Her hand reaching for mine on the trail. Squeezing rocks and pebbles and stones - inside joke. Her voice loud and strong in the front seat asking about swear words, speaking them and commenting, "SHIT? What's  the big deal ?"

4 weeks on the road, mostly in a tent with two kids and it comes to a head in the Wendy's parking lot. Grumpy, moody big sister again angrily dismisses injured,  yet slightly deserving little sister and stoic, patient,  completely laid back mother loses her SHIT (shit means poop Sadie and here I am using it for emphasis). 

Silence ensues and I order an iced Americano for the road. Luckily there was an espresso stand across the street or I would have had to slam a burger and a Frosty.

A favorite podcast fills the auditory void. Getting closer to camp. Maybe Dad can help. We all have turns talking in the rest area. I love yous, sniffles and near silent whispers. Helpful? Questionable.

Almost back to tent. Elk in the field. Maybe 30-40. We stop and watch with wonder and reluctance. Pretty quiet, pretty grumpy. Internally, I am working my best "look on the bright side of things."

Van pulls into our site. Headphones on. Guess it was my call to torture us all with suffocating bad juju when I said "no electronics until you can tell me you understand" back in the parking lot, neck deep in my best motherly shit show.

Maren in the van. Sadie in the tent. Me in the chair with an IPA and The Sun. 

"Mom?"
(From the van)
" I miss dad and home and the dogs and my friends.
What can I do for you?
"I don't know. I AM HOMESICK. I wanna keep driving and doing fun things. But I miss Dad."

Me too. 
I've been dreaming of David and bumping into him and reuniting and just these romantic,  kind of -I've finally found you- scenes. 

I tell Maren about tentative plans for tomorrow and the next day. I throw in a motel with an indoor pool to maybe cheer her up. But we're gonna camp two more nights, I warn. 

"Mom, I like your new earrings."
She throws me a line.
I guess she is still looking out the window, noticing.

With Sadie asleep in the tent and the lantern off, there is space in darkness to tell me what she understands. Except the conversation takes a left turn that I wasn't expecting. I want her to tell me that she understands how her attitude and mood affect others. I want her to expound upon how important the relationship between her and her sister is to her sister and aim to treat her more kindly more often. I want her to tell me she is having fun and she wants to be on the road for another 2.5 weeks. But these are my worries, not hers.

Her words jump back into sixth grade and far ahead into a new school. She questions herself - want she did and didn't do, what she may not be able to do at the next school. She knows who she is and she has doubts about how this will serve her in the future. She understands that she is scared and she is anticipating all that can go wrong. She shares things that went really wrong, weeks and months ago. I thought we were headed right and she went in a very different direction.

So I try that stoic, patient laid back mother thing for real this time and I listen. I don't say a word and she keeps talking. I asked her to explain her behavior and she is doing a bang up job, no end in sight.

I can't tell if she ran out things to say or if she ran out of breath, but she pauses. So, I reach for hand in the dark. 

"Those are a lot of things to be thinking about.  I'm glad you told me." That's all I've got, but it seems to fit.

3 more weeks on the road with two kids in a tent. It's fluid, not this or that. The moments all together in the beauty of the same place will come ad go. The grumpies and distance and discomfort will come and go too. Not my way but whatever the highway has in store.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Sunday Morning in Camperland

Up, out of the tent and  showered before 7am. Loonies in the laundry and the clothes getting clean. French press ready to pour. Robins hop and bounce across the grass and pull the poor worm up from the dirt for breakfast. The tiny asters begin their daily display and open ever so slightly as the first direct rays of morning light land on the ground. Girls sleep soundly; each on a far side of the tent, one curled in a ball at the end of her sleeping pad, the other mouth open straight as a board.

I thought they'd never get out of the water. They closed the pool- last one's in- at 9pm. This after a day that began 11 hours earlier in water. Pure childhood joy. Screams of fun, thumbs up and increasing episodes on independence as the water slides became more familiar. Refusing to take a break for lunch, we each chose a favorite water slide and rode it repeatedly.

Team Kamakazi
Team River Rapid
Team Waterblaster

We are sliders.

Afternoon in the pool, googles, doggie paddle, underwater for seconds at a time.

"Watch me. Watch me."

Hard to keep my eyes off them. Memories of my own vacations as a kid, I remember how important the pool is. I would have slept and ate in it if I could. My girls feel the same.

This trip is about them, for them as is all David and I do, but I see right in front of me why... Joy, pure delight and fun. The happiness oozes off of them and all over me.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mother's Day in Real Time

"Are you up?"
"How'd you sleep?"
"Good."
"How'd you sleep?"
"Good."
"It's Mother's Day."
"OH MY GOD!"

I woke slowly to this conversation in the bed next to me. Soft footsteps across the room. Small body in bed with me. Wanting to waking me, but not trying to wake me. When I did turn ever so slightly, because I wasn't ready to be awake...

"Are you up?"
"Happy Mother's Day! Do you want your present?"
"Do you want them all now or spread them out?"

Homemade crafts and handwritten notes.

I love you because you feed me. I love you because you help me get dressed. I love you because you let me have computer time.

She NEVER lets me help her get dressed. I am a computer time dictator.

Scrapbook of photos and cryptic messages.

Alaska wildflowers. Meh. 
RUN. Up in the mountains somewhere.
I found a huge trout that was half dead. I LOVE KENAI!

GOOD coffee in a hotel room bed. Animal Planet in the background. Me and the girls in Homer. Happy Mother's Day to me.

It wasn't until the second read through that it hit me. The message in the pre-teen's scrapbook gift.

YOU ARE EPIC.
I wanna thank you for being there for me. I look up to you and you inspire me. And I love you so much. We all love you.

This is why we do what we do. We don't do all the things mother's do because we want positive feedback, I mean it's always nice, but we do all the things that mother's do because we are mothers.

My daughter thinks I am epic. I inspire her. She looks up to me. I've been rolling around in that ALL DAY. And damn it feels good.

We wound down our magnificent weekend in beautiful, beachy Homer with one last walk on Bishop Beach.

Still rolling around in my epic motherliness, scanning the rocks, on the shore, in the sun, with the breeze  at my back, a SCREAMING, INCONSOLABLE child suddenly at my feet.

"I got BIT BY A DOG."

Hyperventilating Sadie. Me looking for spurting blood, torn flesh.

She breathes and tells me that a dog came running at her, grabbed her leg and started shaking it. She kicked it and it let go. It grabbed her other leg. She ran away.

"The lady was screaming at the dog. She was getting the dog in trouble. What if she puts down the dog?"

The other lady asked her if she was ok.

"I held back my cries. She kept asking me. Like 5 times. I told her yes."

She was NOT OK. She was terrified. She was shaking and not breathing and whimpering and crying loudly.

It was then I realized I hadn't even seen the wound.

When she showed me her leg, the apricot-sized, black and blue welt contained three small red bite marks- no punctures.

When she showed me the other leg, my mind went blank. I saw the black and blue lump with the bloody skin tear, but I froze. Not very inspirational or epic.

OH MY GOD.
IT'S MOTHER'S DAY AND MY KID GOT BIT BY A DOG. TWICE.

And I didn't even see it.

She had settled down, but she was hurting. I cannot tell you if it was from physical or mental pain. With Maren and Judy by her side, I knew I needed to find the dog and the owner.

I walked directly to that owner and with firm voice I asked, "What happened?"

Tears rolling down her face, she explained that the tiny dog got away from her. She keeps the yippy mutt on leash because it can be aggressive. I described the broken skin, the swollen blue welts and the terrified kid.

You can't let this happen again. I demanded kindly.

Back at the van, Sadie coping, then screaming, I posited the options...hospital? Animal control?

I googled " what to do if your kid gets bit by a dog." I did. I could not think clearly.

I identified the LOR (level of responsiveness of patient) and began the PAS (Patient Assessment System) -Thank you Wilderness First Aid training- but making a decision about what to do for my own kid...

So I called another Mom. A Mom whose kid got bit by a dog and oh yeah, she's a nurse too.

She walked me through the options and I made a decision. No stitches needed. No hospital.

After I washed the wound, I slathered it with antibiotic cream, bandaged it up and triple wrapped it with gauze as per Sadie's request. I cradled her in the front seat of the van for a long time. She asked a lot of questions. Not about herself, but about the owner and the dog, and why it came after her and if the owner would retrain the dog instead of put it down.

I reassured her that she was brave and kind to think of the dog. I told her that she was SO MUCH TOUGHER than I was as a kid.

"I was born to the new you Mom.
When you were a kid, you were the old you.
You were afraid of climbing and you didn't run hundreds of miles.
 I was born to the new you and that is why I am tough."

At the playground, Sadie ran off on her own towards the park. I wanted to call to her, tell her to wait for me, be careful.

A chocolate lab approached her, sniffed her. She patted it on the head and from a distance, smiled and gave me a thumbs up.

I love you two because you make me a mother.
I love you two because you surprise me and keep it interesting.
I love you two because just by being with you I am learning to be epic and inspiring.

HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY.



Friday, April 24, 2015

Museum Talk

Last month, I had an amazing opportunity to share my experiences with running. I was completely petrified to do so. I sat on a panel of amazing local folks who also shared their stories. I am so grateful to have had such an opportunity because now I have this written memory to keep.

I got an easy breezy message from Julie about giving an informal chat on motivation, inspiration and creativity at the Museum. With some hesitation, I accepted her invite wondering, what in the world could I possibly have to offer to the staff at the Anchorage Museum.

When I received the more detailed invite via email, I had just woken up from a nap in my bathrobe after a morning workout that left me weak and sore to a house that looked as if I was living with a fraternity.

When I saw the list of speakers, I panicked, certain I would never measure up to the accomplishments of the folks here today. So I contacted an expert, a friend who has been inspiring people every Sunday for 30 years about overcoming obstacles and change. He told me to tell my own story honestly, to own it and know that what I have accomplished is unique and no small matter.

So, Good morning, I am Sarah Duffy and I run 100 mile races.

I honestly believe that running, especially ultra-running has allowed me to become a happier and better human being.

In 2010, after completing a number of marathons and my first 50K, I asked my two most experienced ultra friends if I was ready to run 100 miles. Each had their own very different response, but when my friend yelled, “100 miles, YES! You can totally do it!” I believed her.

I signed up for my first 100 miler in Arizona in November 2010 and from Nov 2010 to Nov 2011, I completed three 100 mile events in three different states.

During the first 100, I ran 15 mile laps in the desert for over 28 hours. I experienced flash flooding, hallucinations of white ducks in the desert, excruciating blisters and the brightest, most brilliant sunrise I had ever seen.

My second 100 here in Alaska had me run from Hope to Cooper Landing and back. I shared the first 50 miles with my enthusiastic mentor and we laughed and sang and talked until things went downhill for her and she had to end her race at 50 miles. The second 50 miles took me from the lowest of lows to the best power nap in the tundra to the angriest I had ever been. I was so frustrated and overwhelmed by the monotony and pain and fatigue of running 100 miles that I left my pacer behind at 80 miles and sprinted into the 88 miles aid station solo and ready to get the race done. It wasn’t until I had visions of a small rabbit trapped in a cage, a black bear sitting by the side of the road and a woman with long braids and a flannel shirt cheering me on that I leapt across the finish line completely joyful, proud and appreciative of my experience.

In November 2011, I conquered a 100 mile race in CA. In involved 22,000 feet of climbing over the course. The hills never ended and I sobbed  in exhaustion with each ascent I made. The bright golden eyes of a mountain lion in the dark at 3am 70 miles into the race set me straight. I yelled and banged rocks together and explained that I had two young kids at home. Please let me pass. I finished the race well under the cut-off for a silver belt buckle.

I was hooked.

I had no idea what adventure, challenge and opportunity 100 miles would offer. I relished even thrived in the absurdity of moving through 100 miles without stopping. Ultimately, running 100 miles is a simple act. One foot in front of the other, eat, drink, keep moving. Relentless forward progress. I started to figure out that if I could be more comfortable with being uncomfortable, I could find success on the trail and in my life.

At the end of 2013, I had an idea. The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning includes 4 of the most challenging, competitive 100 mile races in the country all within 12 weeks of each other. My chances of accomplishing this were slim and hence the concept of the Alaska Slam was born. In the early, hours of morning on a pre-dawn run, I announced to my running mates that I would complete all 4 Alaskan 100 mile races in 2014: The Su100 in Feb., the White Mountains 100 in March, the Sluicebox 100 in June and the Resurrection Pass 100 in August.

It sounded foolish, exciting, egotistic and humbling all at the same time. It felt do-able and impossible, like no big deal and a bite bigger than I can chew. It made me wonder who I think I am. I’m no professional athlete or even a talented athlete for that matter. On the other hand, it was one race, one run at a time. It was a chance to step out of the daily path that makes up life and shoot for something bigger. It is an accomplishment made of smaller accomplishments, but each of those smaller accomplishments takes commitment and perseverance and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

The first two winter races involved pulling a sled with required/necessary gear. Training to run 100 miles is one thing but training to run 100 miles with 25 lbs. of gear behind you is another. Training involves multi-hour jaunts dragging a sled. This means leaving behind my family, my work as a teacher and home responsibilities and heading out.
So with a 6 hour sled pull on the training calendar, I multi-tasked with an empty sled, a dry bag and a to-do list in hand. I dropped the van off for an oil change downtown and headed to Costco on Debarr. Kimchi, nuts, cheese, cat litter, laundry detergent and coffee in the dry bag and off I went. Pulling substantial weight in groceries I headed south and east to the Chester Creek trail and began a parent teacher conference via cell phone as I pulled my groceries. I discussed educational interventions with one of my parents from Northern Lights overpass to Valley of the Moon. I’d say it was almost a 3 mile conference.

The security guard kept an eye on my sled at the Wells Fargo Branch while I deposited my check. I headed north on C to my school office on Fireweed to makes copies for class. My groceries stayed nicely chilled on the brisk January day.

From here I continued north to coffee at Snow City downtown, why not, I got all my errands done. From Snow City to Ak Sales and Service was a straight shot down 5th and my 6 hour sled pull was in the books.

I should probably mention the honks, hollers, waves and comments from passersby while trudging around town. It must have been an odd sight to see me trudging through midtown pulling a dry bag the size of a small child behind me. On another sled pulling run, a woman near Hilltop honestly asked me if my child was in my zipped up duffle on the back of my sled. All I could say was, shhhh, she’s sleeping.

The two winter races, Susitna first, then White Mtns were tough in cold, dark unfamiliar country. Your body is working so hard to stay warm and deal with the extra weight you are pulling. I couldn’t eat enough calories to fuel this endeavor. My pace slowed way down.

During the Susitna, I found myself in the middle of a frozen bog in the middle of the night lost and alone with a -20 degree sleeping bag wrapped around my body to try to stay warm. This race continued on for more than 32 hours, it felt like it would never end. I had to focus on one spruce tree to the next to keep moving. The voice in my head was on repeat, just walk to that tree, ok now run to the big tree, you can stop and walk at that tree up there. It was tree to tree for a long time.

At 89 miles in the middle of a roadless nowhere I saw a parking lot full of cars and cried tears of joy knowing I could quit, call my husband and get a ride home. The Alaska Slam plan was dead before the end of the first race. Fortunately, I think, this parking lot was a figment of my calorie deprived imagination and I continued on for another 11 miles to finish the race.

The WM 100 north of Fairbanks was a similar and completely different challenge. The new landscape was a novelty for the first 40 miles, as this was my first time exploring the White Mountains. I had company too. A good friend from Anchorage and I spent the first 60 miles together telling stories, sharing secrets and learning about the important chapters in each other’s lives.

 The long climb up to the mountain pass slowed me down and I got cold. I kept seeing a man on a snow machine behind me, keeping his distance, but keeping an eye on me at the same time. And this time he was REAL. He was the sweeper. I was in dead last place.

The stars sparkled and shot through the dark sky. Ribbons of colorful northern lights danced and waved just above the mountain ridges. I can still see that sky in my mind very vividly.

The 19 mile section of trail between 60-79 miles took me almost 7 hours. I kept waking up on top of my sled, not knowing I had laid down to rest. Each time I’d try to wake up and stand, shivering with cold I’d fall off trail into the deep snow.
I was sure I was lost and I did not want to go on, but in the middle of the White Mtns, I put one foot in front of the other and smiled my way into the sunshine of the next day.

I was the very last participant to finish that race in 35 hours and change. Last place- the red lantern. And when I crossed the finish line and stopped moving the greatest guy in Alaska at that moment handed me a grilled reindeer sausage and said, “Good job.” It sure felt like I did a good job, red lantern and all.

It was such a relief to have the winter races done and the dreaded sled got hung in the shed were it hangs untouched to this day. Two down and two to go. Bring on the running and the summer.

The Sluicebox in Fairbanks in June was daylight all night. Within the first mile of the race I joined forces with a person I now call friend. We spent the first 92 miles together. With each mile the friendship grew stronger and we shared the work or leading, encouraging and pushing until all we had left could only cover our own efforts. I signed up to run a race and found a new friendship in the miles.

The race was full of typical challenges- fatigue, nausea, soreness and boredom, but overall I felt capable, present and determined.

Two old friends met me with 3 miles left and their love and support carried me across the finish line. I fell to the ground, smiled and declared, “THAT was AWFUL.”

Four weeks later the final race of the slam was upon me- The Resurrection Pass 100. I was on my own this time. Bolstered by the experience of having completed the race before, yet I was still fearful of being alone at night in bear country and self-supported for the first 40 miles of the race.

My husband met me at 40 miles close to midnight and rode me up to Devil’s Pass turn-off. He let me sleep for 9 minutes in a willow shrub out of the wind and watched me vanish into the early morning light and over the pass.

At 70 miles I was handed a piping hot cup of strong French Press coffee, quite possibly the best cup of coffee I’d had ever. I wrote Mary a thank you note for that cup of coffee.

It was my confidence or the coffee that inspired me to leave the aid station knowing what was ahead and what I had to do. It felt long and I had to push through feelings of wishing I was further along, but I put my head down, ran and finished fast and strong in 26 hours.

A friend made me a lovely trophy- a gold pan with big gold letters that read ALASKA SLAM 2014. The big smile on my face in the post race posed photo wasn’t because I completed my goal. I was just so darn happy to be done with all the running.

It took months to think through, process and feel my Alaska Slam experience. It was once my life returned to a more typical structure that I came to appreciate what the completion of my goal had done for me. I caught myself taking lessons from the trail and applying them to my own daily grind. Be more comfortable being uncomfortable, bring my ego to what I do and know when to ask for help. Push through the pain and suffering-keep moving. Action fixes being stuck. And some days are going to be like the last 10 miles- tree to tree.

Two weeks ago the dog was sick and vomiting in the backyard. He couldn’t keep water down. My pre-teen was moody and angry and I was her target, the puppy puked on the door mat and the cat in the playroom. My at times demanding 7 year old had her 28th idea of the morning that required my assistance and it was just before 7am. All I could do was laugh. This is when life is like an ultra. It’s like walking through a frozen bog at -10 degrees in the middle of  the night with a sleeping bag over my head. ABSURD!

Push through, stay present, keep fixing problems until there aren’t any left or at least until it’s time to take the kids to school.

Opportunity, beauty, innovation and inspiration don’t live where it’s comfortable. You have to stay with the discomfort. You have to be willing to meet it. The advice I was given during my first 100 miles with 10 miles left to go was “Embrace the suck.” It’s where the mountain lions, the northern lights, the new friendships and the really good coffee are.

I approach new situations and challenges with my ego. I start with the premise I CAN DO THIS. I can run 4 100 mile races this year just like the professional runner I heard talking about the Grand Slam. When it gets hard and I don’t know how or which way to proceed I ask a question. I listen. I ask for help. Julie’s invitation to speak today scared me, so I said yes and here I am.

Things pile up in life I think this is something everyone can relate to in this day and age. We make lists, check off what we get done and there is always more to do tomorrow.  Mom, wife, teacher, ultra- runner, 2 dogs, a cat 2 rabbits and 4 hermit crabs; my responsibilities fall under many categories. Most days I find myself in my head worrying about how I am going to get it all done. It is then I am reminded of the last 10 miles. Just think tree to tree. Halfway through a 100 miles it is devastating to think I still have 50 more miles to go. It is even worse at 98 miles when you realize you still have 2 miles left. UGH.

So on the days when the list is long or when the mind can’t grasp how it all will ever get done, I go tree to tree. I remind myself that all I have to do right now is get the kids to school. That is where I am and that is what I am doing. Next I pick up some groceries. I can shop. I don’t mentally wander off to the next 12 things on the list. This allows me to be effective in getting tasks done. It keeps me present in the moment and there is joy and satisfaction and accomplishment there.


I used to wish that I had accomplished more, traveled extensively and challenged myself in more physically demanding ways. Running ultras reminds me that on any given day I can reap the benefits of my efforts. I can have any experience available to me if I am present. I can feel the satisfaction and opportunity within discomfort and whether I am in my own kitchen, on top of a mountain or speaking in front of a group, I am getting better at being uncomfortable.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Cabin Life


We've been coming to this cabin for 15 years. It's simple. Short walk in. Solid facility. Personal gear only. We've been here with kids, before kids, with visitors and other families. We've hiked in with our old dogs Marker and Ellie and our new dogs, Charlie and Homer. 

I'm amazed by the switch that gets flipped in me. Upon arrival, I take off the backpack, unpack a few necessaries and lower myself into a chair. My cabin activity is arriving. Once I'm there, that is what I do. I inhabit the cabin.

Girls come and go, from the creek, to the rocks, into the cabin. Dogs cry to get out and paw to get back in. I put wood in the stove and fire up the hot water. I look out the window, read, write and wander outside to see whatever the girls have to show me.



Maren spends long stretches on the creek.


The girls get wound up and whacky with Nerf guns.


Sadie buzzes back and forth from fairy houses to games to dog training to a snack in the cabin.


Charlie spends more time with me, still in the cabin. He escorts me to the outhouse and lays at my feet, content to inhabit the cabin.


Homer follows the girls and leaps and bounds from squirrel sounds to interesting scents in the woods.



I do wander out with camera in hand and looks at things close up. Moss. Seed pouch. Back to cabin.


The next morning, I wake to a retching puppy, close to 5 AM and let him out the door. The fire is out. I rebuild it. I start hot water. I sit. I look out the window at the pre-dawn view. Girls wake up and I make coffee, hot cocoa, cider and oatmeal. We talk and read and do a puzzle. We laugh at the stories in the cabin journal. We laugh really hard. Then I stand up.

It's time to go. Pack up the packs. I have finished being in the cabin. Don't know what time it is, for I don't have anywhere to be. I have no feelings or worries about leaving or getting home. It just seems like time to go. So we leave. Now I am leaving the cabin.

I guess this is why I go. To live by some internal clock that I never pay much attention to. To just inhabit, to be. Experiences like this make me wonder about how I can bring this feeling into my life more routinely. I  think cabin life and civilian life are mutually exclusive. I think I'll just get to the cabin more often.


Monday, November 24, 2014

Little thank you notes

11.24.14

New page open. Favorite font selected (Century Gothic FYI). Writing commences.



Got some left over burrito.


Ate it.

Almost opened FB. DID NOT.

Watching puppy eat my grocery bag. Ok got it.


Sigh.

Ugh.

Ate the burnt piece of the burrito. Better than staring at the blank page. The ideas seem so clever as they formulate and percolate in my brain throughout the day. This is why I do not write them down. Because the writing part is the hard part. Where to start? How to slide into the topic- fluidly, humorously, with my own voice…

When I started teaching  almost 15 years ago in New Mexico, we had a really rough year. Our school community lost three students in a very short period of time. Weeks. Two were murdered and one was killed in a horrific car accident on the same route that I drove to school each day. 

One was in my 5th period Study Skills class and I stared at her empty desk every day. It was jarring for the kids and staff alike. The loss felt very real, very close like one could reach out and touch it. I had never lost a student before and their faces were on my mind every day for a long while.

The following Thanksgiving, on a whim, I handed all of my kids a piece of paper and I asked them to think about someone in the school community that they are grateful for. We talked about thankfulness and gratitude and appreciation. I asked them to write a simple ‘thank you statement:” a clear thank you, to a specific person, detailing a specific action that made a difference and sign his/her name.

I remember hoping I’d get a note or two. Every teacher wants to feel appreciated and as I sorted the notes into piles, I was floored by all the different people that the students were grateful for: the nurse, the janitor, the library assistant, the grumpy Social Studies teacher, the quiet kid and yes, me.  I had decided NOT to read the notes and just deliver them to the recipient, but I couldn’t resist opening a note or two.
Even more fulfilling was the hand delivering of these notes to each and every recipient. I started by explaining what we had done in class: the gratitude talk, the specific directions, it’s Thanksgiving time, blah, blah, blah. But then I soon realized all I needed to say as I handed the small scrap of paper over was someone is thankful for you.

I have returned to teaching after being away for ten years raising kids. It has not been an easy transition, but it has been a worthwhile one overall. This current school year, I find myself wandering through a job week to week with lots of doubt, insecurity, resentment and little gratitude ( my own that is). I took on a funky workload with not enough time in my contract to really do my job. I find myself in a school setting where the culture is unclear. Each family revolves in their own little home school world and it has been difficult to feel that connection teaching has always given me. I have moments to passion and breakthrough, but they don’t always inspire or lead to what happens next.

Tomorrow, the kids and I will talk about gratitude and the power of the words THANK YOU. We will all write little notes and I will deliver them with the message someone is thankful for you. I am going to start now.

Thank you Elbertha, for opening my door each morning when you get there first.

Thank you MJ for the lovely drawing you did of me being a teacher. It was a welcome gift on a low day.

Thank you Makena and Becky for thanking me for class each day.

Thank you Mary for reminding me to slow down and a teacher and a person.

Thank you Mrs. Titus for the kind, respectful way you communicated your displeasure with my curriculum. I felt listened to and considered
.
Thank you to the parents that gave me an opportunity to listen to their concerns and communicate my goals for my classroom.

Thank you to the seventh graders that have no trouble telling me they just don’t get it. We work at it a different way and then they work harder to get it. That is all I could ask for.

This year, I think the writing of the notes will be the best part for me.


Monday, September 01, 2014

In the Alphabet Hills



The Beaver dropped us off late Wednesday afternoon on Ward Lake or Bear Lake- depending on whom you ask. Jerry landed, brought the plane to a stop, unloaded our gear and he was GONE.  We were left in a bushy, lakeside spot that would become home for the next number of days.
We soon set up camp and fell into the daily routine of a campy chores. Wake, boil water, hunt, start fire, eat, hike, pick berries, eat, hunt, gather firewood, survey area with binoculars, sit, read, pick, hike, eat, rebuild fire, hunt, drink wine/tea, sit, read, sleep, repeat. The sleeping tent was perched up on a slight knoll and the make-shift kitchen was marked by a noisy brown tarp. Campfire and lounge area could be found lakeside. Grayling fishing to the far right of camp, blueberry central to the left, right and behind camp. We watched caveman tv (the fire) and the beaver channel, which consisted of a family of 5-7 beavers that worked in played right before our very eyes. While we enjoyed their entertainment, they seemed rather annoyed by our presence and let us know with an aggressive whack of the tail in our general direction.




The blueberries were the best picking I have probably ever experienced. Large blue grape-like globes grew in the dwarf birch alongside the small creeks that ran down into the lake. Bunches of 7 and 8 berries could be easily plucked in a one-handed grab. I could fill both palms at the same time, rather quickly, with proper body placement in the right patch. While I started with one berry bowl, I quickly moved to two and did not return to camp until both were spilling over. I carefully balanced an overflowing plastic bowl in each hand and later found that with each bowlful I was securing 2 1/2 cups of berries. Therefore, it would take me 15-50 minutes to accumulate 5 cups of berries. I came home with a 5 gallon bucket of berries and then some.
David hunted morning, afternoon and evening, sometimes by ancient skiff and other times on a walk-about around camp. We'd watch him move farther and farther away and then get closer and closer to camp hours later. The girls bounced from reading and drawing to fishing or berry picking to fairy house building and roaming freely on the edges of camp. Hours were spent making potions in a 5 gallon bucket and hunting for, carving and whittling the perfect staff. I moved between reading and picking and fire-tending- maybe my favorite camp thing to do.


Sadie honed her bone-finding skills.  Her future is bright in the art of skull, antler and jaw exploration. She spent many minutes wiggling moose and caribou teeth loose from their jawlines. Maren caught upwards of 20 grayling, keeping some in a 5 gallon habitat for observation before releasing them back into the small lagoon below the lake.






The colors in the hills were so rich and bright and vibrant. When the sun lit the land with its' bright rays, the colors were illuminated in bright reds, oranges, yellows and lime green. I was reminded of the feeling in spring when the sun's rays return and the light feels so good on the skin. The colors of autumn soak one in such awesome hues that one's eyes receive  a sensory overload of coloration. With each passing day the colors got brighter and deeper and more widely spread. Autumn truly is the season of color.


The sky was such a sight. Depending on weather and time of day, the sky never failed to amaze. The reflection of the lake only added to the dimension of the landscape. The first two nights were reasonably warm, but when the cold settled in for the second two nights, a mist developed in the evening, creating a middle layer between land, water  and sky. Binoculars provided a sharper landscape for the human eye. We watched moose and caribou roam the distant hills, beaver, loons and caribou swim in the lake and swans, kingfishers, eagles, ospreys, jays and kestrels navigate the sky.
A gunshot fired in the distance late in the morning of our last full day. Even in the silence of the wilderness, I second-guessed whether or not I had truly heard the loud, disruptive noise. As to plan, I turned on the walkie-talkie and waited to hear. Nothing for minutes. "Hello. I shot a caribou," David's quiet voice finally called. Just a mile a way, he came back to camp, gathered family and supplies and we all anxiously followed him back to the caribou.
He led us along and above the creek that began behind camp, through the short spruce and dwarf birch, to a glorious golden meadow divided by a meandering creek.  I only knew the animal lay creek side and I anxiously anticipated the moment my eyes found it. The sight of the caribou collapsed on its side took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes. It wasn't the sadness I expected, but more of a gratitude and awe for the environment and the animal and my family experiencing this together. 

And then the work began. David quickly went to work field-dressing the animal. I found myself gaping at his handiwork until he threw me a pair of rubber gloves and instructed me to pull the skin back. I couldn't take my eyes off the inside of the animal; the muscle, the fur, the tendon and cartilage. By removing its skin we allowed the warmth of its body to escape and thus release the last of its life. This felt like important, humble work. I served as David's assistant, retrieving game bags, spraying meat and placing raw flesh in clean white sacks. I thought I would cower and gag and become disinterested, but David was meticulous in his work, at times talking his way through the process, but not talking to me. It was something to see. 

Sadie moved closer and closer to the kill site, finally becoming fully engaged in the bloody carcass. Maren stayed a safe distance away, but kindly checked on me with the thumbs up and down sign. Even though I responded with nothing but thumb ups, she never got involved and in her words, found it " rough."
David loaded my pack in preparation for the return to camp. The meat would be hauled back to the hanging racks and secured with a bear fence. Two hind quarters strapped to my back, a half set of ribs in one hand balanced by the 45-70 in the other, I was quickly winded. Meat and bone are heavy. Lifting my legs over soft tundra and around fallen logs and roots, I quickly felt the familiar fatigue of the last hours of  a 100 miler. One step at a time, ignore the back and shoulder pain. This was a small caribou and it crushed me.
This was a proud moment for our family. This is where the words become more challenging to find to express the feelings of thankfulness, hard work, independence and togetherness. It was a calm, quiet, humbling moment. A moment of feeling very small, in a vast natural world.


This was an amazing 5 days for our family. I understand why David holds this time precious in his yearly plans. Our girls had an individual experience that they determined on their own. We just got them to the location and they made it their experience. For that we are very proud. We were together as a family in a way I think we can only be in a place like this. Our regular chores and routines and schedules were replaced with whatever we created at any given moment. A rhythm was created without discussion or plans, we just were.
As Jerry arrived to pick us up a little later than planned, I cried at the sight of the plane. I did not want to leave. As we flew back to Glenallen, I took in every last bit of landscape, every sight.
The girls seemed happy, but reluctant to leave. They made their dad promise to come back next year. He happily did.