Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Showing Up

 This morning, I slept in, then lay in bed delaying the day as I tried to imagine a balance between what I want to do and what I should do. Lucky enough to have a lovely, long weekend that includes Thanksgiving with people I love, I’m nevertheless aware of the ticking clock accompanying the papers and end-of-semester tasks awaiting me. 

As is often the case, the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other often brings perspective. Once I got up and started my day (with the mundane task of laundry), I realized that I was (once again) overthinking and overcomplicating things, and that realization made the answer easy.


I can do that.

The post below was written about a different break four years ago. My daughter is no longer in college, but will be at the table for our celebration tomorrow. There’s no beach trip planned, but I will spend plenty of time in our sunroom, inspired by so many screened-in porches at the beach.

And those papers? Some will get my attention and others won’t as I make sure the most important priority guides the next few days.

Showing up.

Happy Thanksgiving.

pepperminting via Pixabay
When I was a freshman in college, fall break wasn't a thing -- at least not at my school. The first break longer than a weekend came at Thanksgiving and one of my high school friends bet me that I wouldn't make it until then -- that I'd need to come home for a weekend sometime between late August and late November.

Never bet a Jersey girl that she can't do something. She'll either correct you (I could do that if I wanted to) or set out to prove you wrong. In the case of the Thanksgiving challenge, I won the bet.

Sometime before I graduated -- or maybe it was when I was in grad school -- Bucknell instituted fall breaks, a decision all of us appreciated. Ironically, many years after my own freshman year, my daughter ended up choosing a college that didn't have a fall break either. Her freshman year, she decided if I could make it until Thanksgiving, so could she. So, like me, she saw her parents at Parents' Weekend in October and kept herself busy every other weekend between late August and late November.

Now a senior, she still doesn't have a fall break, but I do. This time, I'm on the other side of the desk and I have hurdles to clear in the form of papers and midsemester warning grades. I also managed to end up with not one, but two writing deadlines mid-month and this sundry collection of tasks stands between me and fall break at the beach like a succession of unwelcome dominoes. I have only myself to blame, since every single domino was my idea in the first place.

Yesterday, I was feeling the crunch. Unlike the pleasant crunch of leaves beneath my feet (which we've yet to feel here in Central PA as we had temperatures in the high 80s as late as last week), this time crunch makes me grouchy and leads to me doing things like yelling at my computer screen because MS Word is somehow displaying all of my formatting and I don't know how to make it go away. (I eventually figured it out).

I thought I was alone in this (the dominoes, not the yelling at my computer) -- that everyone else was somehow more organized and on the ball than I. But then, this afternoon, I sat in a meeting with a small group of colleagues as we tried to plow through a task. A little more than halfway through the meeting (which wasn't that long to begin with), everyone ran out of steam. We pooled our resources, wrapped early and scattered to our various tasks, the clock ticking toward our deadlines.

Apparently something about misery really does love company, at least in this case. It's nice to know that on this beautiful, dare I say perfect fall afternoon, other instructors are huddled over laptops, papers and lab reports, wishing for a deadline that's just a little bit later than the one we've been given.

Engin Akyurt via Pixabay
This morning in my first year seminar, I had my students pause to take in the orientation slide on which I announce assignments -- the one that had nothing on it except the discussions we were having in class today and Friday. Together, we sighed at the beauty of the blank expanse of space that usually contained assignments and readings. We knew they'd be back after break but, for today, the slide contained nothing for them to do except show up.

And, for the next several days, that is my task. I simply need to show up, ready to read, grade, calculate and, if necessary, warn that the second half of the semester will require a little more effort than the first.

When I put it that way, it doesn't sound so bad. And it sounds a lot better knowing that, even though I can't see them from my vantage point, my colleagues are showing up, too.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

10 Things I'm Thankful For

geralt via Pixabay

 My students and I are ready for a break before the final push of the semester but, with Thanksgiving just a few days away, it's time to pause and focus on a few things I'm grateful for.

1. Having my daughter home for the better part of a week. She lives close enough that weekends are regular occurrence, but a whole week is a real treat.

2. Celebrating Thanksgiving with my dad, my husband and my daughter. A small group is the norm for our family and, as someone who loves to visit with people but gets stressed out when it comes to feeding them, I'm good with that.

3. The semester is almost over. I enjoy teaching, and even planning, but 'tis the season for endless grading, which is not my favorite thing.

5. I teach one less class in the spring, so...writing? One can only hope.

6. Good colleagues and (overall) good students. I really do enjoy what I do, despite the inevitable frustrations.

7. Our sunroom: my favorite room in the house.

8. The beauty of fall. My favorite thing to watch through the sunroom windows is gently falling snow. Gently falling leaves and the colors of fall are a close second.

9. Relaxing pursuits. Time off from work always includes reading, creative pursuits, and sometimes, a jigsaw puzzle. 

10. Ideas, characters, and the readers who support them...and me. Thank you to all of you who read my work, whether it's my books, my blog posts, my posts on L2Hess and Friends Facebook page, or all of the above.

What are you thankful for?

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

What's on My Desk: Then and Now

 Yesterday's "what's on my desk" post piqued my curiosity regarding what was there the last time I wrote a similar post. Here's one from March 2020.

A flowered napkin. A testimony to my determination to use less of our resources (and now in the laundry, not on my desk). I started by replacing paper towels with microfiber cloths and paper napkins with cloth. Not everyone in my family is on board and I still reach for a paper towel or paper napkin from time to time as well, but I've greatly reduced my paper usage. 2023: Not there.

A small orange top. Yes, the actual child's toy. A couple of years ago, I joined the Next Big Idea Book Club, which sends me curated books a couple of times a year (and sends the same titles to schools as well). Their packages often have some small, quirky item inside and the little top made it to my desk, where it has taken up permanent, playful residence. 2023: Still there.

My ticking clockIt was too loud for my bedroom, but makes a nice addition my desk. Since I should be awake while I'm at my desk, the ticking is not a problem. 2023: Still there.

Be Still. I've Got this -- God. A small, wooden cross with these words on it hangs from a file bin (I have a similar reminder on the hanging organizer in the kitchen). This, combined with my 7 Promises from God helps me to remember I don't have to do it all, or all alone. 2023: Still there.

Eye drops. Dry eye + lots of computer time makes these a necessity. Add an I need to see it personal style to the equation, and having them on top of my desk, inches away from my laptop, makes perfect sense. 2023: Still there.

A repurposed spice jar with seashells inside. I'm not an early riser so, when we go to the beach, the shells I collect are tiny or fragments. The combination of lost earrings (two earrings, two different pairs), a spice jar with a broken lid and my tiny (literally) seashell collection yielded a pretty desktop reminder of the beach that makes me smile on challenging days (when I wish that's where I was). 2023: Still there -- and a little fuller.

I had fun doing this post and need to remember to do random objects posts more often. Shout out (again) to Sarah Reinhard, who gave me this idea in the first place.

What's on your desk? And what does it say about you?

Monday, November 13, 2023

Five Things on My Desk

As much as I like having a cleared-off desk, I also love personalizing my workspace. I have the usual stuff -- a clock, a photo, a pencil cup -- but I also have a  few other items that have found a space, some temporarily, others more permanently. Here are a few of them.

Two paper clips, one large and red, the other small and purple. I'm a visual organizer and, yes, I sometimes take it to the extreme. Each of my classes is color-coded: one green, one blue, one yellow, one pink. Mostly, this means I use that color folder to house the materials for each class in my school bag but, sometimes, it also means I clip papers for a particular class together in that color paper clip.

A cactus. For Mother's Day one year, I wanted small plants to fit into a plant holder on my front porch. My husband and daughter brought home a flowering cactus and an African violet. Lacking a green thumb, I was not optimistic, however the cactus is still alive and living on my desk and the African violet is in a sunny window, blooming for at least the third time. It's the longest I've ever kept an African violet alive.

Mismatched earrings hanging from a wire organizer. The purpose of the organizer was to allow storage space above and below (which I now realize I have not really done) but, in the process, I discovered that my earrings missing their mates made a cute little detail. I have one earring of a matched set of "Writer" earrings on either end with my missing-a-mate earrings in between.

A knockoff Magic 8 Ball from a kid's meal. Since I haven't had a kid's meal-aged kid in the house for almost two decades, this is one tchotchke that has truly withstood the test of time.

A Living Language (French) day-by-day calendar. The more Duolingo I do, the better I get at translating the phrase-of-the day.

Having taken a closer look at the things that have found a home on my desktop, it won't be long before a few of them (I see you, paper clips) are put into their proper homes, while a few others (where else would I put that knockoff Magic 8 Ball?) will surely remain. 

How about you? Does your desktop have an ascetic aesthetic, or does it contain a few curiosities? 

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Crossover Post: Plans, Success, Failure and Growth

 Sometimes, a theme emerges, so I'm changing up my Wednesday routine. Tomorrow's post on Organizing by STYLE (shared here) connects to yesterday's post here. Enjoy :-)

Every plan seems great at the outset. Excited by the possibilities, we jump in. If all goes well, we’re treated to a lovely honeymoon period during which we have the enthusiasm of a scientist who has proven her hypothesis – or so I imagine, as I’ve never embodied any scientific role (but I have watched a lot of Lessons in Chemistry this week).

Then, we hit the wall. Sometimes it’s a gentle tap, a miscalculation. Or, we get busy, and the day is over before we make good on the promises we made to ourselves. Or maybe those promises slip our minds and, when we remember them, we correct course and get back on track.

Other times, we run into the wall full force or, perhaps, repeatedly, missing our target over and over and reeling from the impact. 

The plan itself, contrary to popular belief, is not the important part. The important part comes when we hit the wall. Do we remain stunned and discombobulated? Limp away and make excuses? Pick up the pieces, put them back into something—anything—resembling the original plan (or a revised version) and move forward?

So often, when we change plans, adapt them, or revamp them, a little (or big) piece of us considers that a failure. We failed to stick to the plan, to follow through, to make good on our promise to ourselves. Part of that assessment (the follow-through part) may be true, but the first part (the failure part) is not. Every time we return to the plan, whether we pick up from where we left off or move on in a different direction, we are succeeding. 

Not only that, we are winning. Life is full of plans and obstacles and, while the latter is inevitable, the former is a mark of optimism. We believe we can change, succeed, press forward, and doing so despite the obstacles (or because of them) is a win, not only for the plan, but for hope, joy, growth, and life.

Or maybe even organization. 

So, keep making those plans, and changing them, adapting them, and even abandoning them when what looks good on paper doesn’t work in the real world. A plan is a promise to oneself to dare to change, and every life needs a little daring in it. And every time we make a plan, follow a plan, or revise a plan, we grow a little bit.

And isn't that the whole point of the process?

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

T is for Tricks of the Trade

Okay, I haven't done any of those things, but that "can't get started" feeling?

Welcome to my writing life. 

I know I'm not alone. When I share this feeling with other writers, they nod knowingly, and then we spend ten minutes discussing whether it's a matter of finding time or making time which, as we both know, is just procrastination disguised as semantics.

For part time writers (i.e. writers who have a day job), winning at the writing game can feel a bit like entertaining a toddler. We need to be quick on our feet, prepared to pivot at a moment's notice, and limit our amount of exposure to shiny objects and other distractions. (This might also be true for full-time writers but, having never been one, I don't feel qualified to assume as much).

Finding the right tools can help a lot. Here are a few of my favorites.

  • A supply of just-right writing tools and writing surfaces. Some days, clicking on a keyboard just doesn't do the trick. We need to pick up our favorite pen, freshly sharpened pencil (complete with that telltale pencil-shaving aroma), or white-board marker and put writing implement to writing surface. Some days we need lines, other days, endless white space, but the tool must feel right in our hands and on the page because flow is key.
  • Writing apps. This is actually a new tool in my arsenal. Last year, another writer recommended the Dabble app. While there's something about logging into a site that is only for writing that helps me to focus, what pulled me in first was the ability to organize all my files for all my projects in one place. Recently, Dabble added a new timer feature with a built-in word count. After the timer goes off, it asks if you want to beat your word count. (Of course I do!)
  • Flexibility. Some days, Plan A works, other days, Plan B works and, from time to time, none of the plans work. I've used writing sprints (alone in my writing space), timed sprints on Zoom or online with other writers, writing in small chunks of time, writing in long blocks of time, writing retreats, brainstorming sessions that prize creativity over productivity, and probably a few other back-door approaches I've forgotten. I admire those for whom one plan does the trick, but I've discovered I'm not one of those people. Three decades of writing have taught me that I do better with many tools in my writing tool belt. (Currently, I'm back on the "small chunks of time" bandwagon).
  • A healthy dose of reality. Taking writing seriously means finding/making time for it, but it also means acknowledging that days have only 24 hours and that priorities besides may fill up the prime time slots in those 24 hours where productivity aligns with creativity. Using my creative brain for other tasks (organizing, decorating, work) might drain my creative energy, or it might refuel it, depending on the projects, the time of day, and how much sleep I got the night before.
In the end, I guess it shouldn't surprise me that I have to get creative when it comes to finding time for creativity. Nor should it surprise me that, some days, that's one hoop too many to jump through.

Luckily, tomorrow is another day, likely with another plan.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Open or Closed?

 When my daughter first left for college, we kept her bedroom door closed. As parents of an only child, we — or I, anyway—found it too difficult to walk past the room I knew she wouldn’t be sleeping in any time soon and the closed door made that inevitable task easier. Besides, that door had been kept closed for privacy reasons throughout her adolescence, so closing it felt right. Normal.

I’m not sure exactly when we started leaving the bedroom door open, but I seem to recall that it had something to do with keeping both bedrooms in our very small second floor adequately heated or cooled.

Lately, though, I’ve been considering a closed-door policy again, albeit for entirely different reasons. Taking in the sight of the unmade bed (to remind me to change the sheets before her next visit) and partially completed projects (to remind me to get back to those tasks) leaves me cringing at the untidiness on a daily basis as I mentally highlight two more things on my to-do list.

Except for its current state of disarray, the room doesn’t look very different from the way it did when I wrote the post below a year and a half ago. My husband and I have staked our claim to some of the closet space, and our daughter has taken a few more things to her apartment but, overall, little has changed, not because we’re hanging on to the past, but because no one has felt the need to use the space in a different way.

As with life, I suspect the changes will be gradual. A few possessions or even an old piece of furniture might move to a new apartment. 

But, until then, all the storage space is fair game.

My daughter has embarked on her first real world journey. She accepted a job, she found an apartment, and she has moved all of her essentials into the apartment. She’s nesting, which is fun for both of us.

Her bedroom at home, just across the hall from ours, is still full of stuff.  In fact, I think there might be at least as much stuff in her bedroom as there is in her apartment.

I’m not entirely sad about this. In fact, yesterday, I went in and moved some things around to fill up some of the empty spaces created by the furniture she took with her. Last week, I put her college comforter on the bed. Small steps towards taking the room into its next incarnation, whatever that will be.

Oh, who am I kidding? It will always be her room. It may look different - in fact, I hope it does because right now, it’s a testimony to everything she has outgrown. It’s a weird Never Never Land sheltering possessions only she can decide the fate of.

I keep thinking back to my own childhood bedroom and wondering if it lived in this stage for a while. I don’t remember having this much stuff. But we moved several times during my childhood and adolescence, no doubt culling and downsizing each time.

But my daughter has had the same bedroom since we brought her home from the hospital. In fact, when she was in elementary school, she got an addition because her room is just above the mud room we added on downstairs. 

Twice as much room to accumulate stuff.

In her defense, she has downsized dramatically over time. In fact, that’s what concerns me. I’m afraid that much of what is still in her room isn’t going anywhere.

Right now, I’m OK with that. As long as there are traces of her in the room, the move my mind knows is permanent, my heart doesn’t have to accept.

I’m not in denial, nor am I unhappy. Just baby-stepping my way into the inevitable. The pandemic gave us two bonus years of having her home -- which I loved -- but it was never meant to be permanent. We didn’t raise her to stay here -- in this house with us -- her whole life. 

But my heart is slow to catch up with my head. And so this room in limbo gives my heart time. Time to adjust. Time to rearrange. Time to, together with her, decide what’s part of her childhood and what’s part of the person she is now.

So, I’ll keep puttering away. Vacuuming this and dusting that, encouraging her to sort through the things she left behind when she comes home to visit. My goal right now is to restore some sense of order while still reflecting its inhabitant, regardless of the purpose it serves when she’s not here.

What that purpose will be is still to be determined, though I can't yet imagine a time that it won't be Leah's room, no matter where she lives.