No More “Shoulding” on Myself

A sunset over I-80 - moments like this have made the 330 mile commute a gift rather than a chore (and yes, mom and dad, I know I probably shouldn't have been taking pics while driving!) :)
A sunset over I-80 - moments like this have made the 330 mile commute a gift rather than a chore (and yes, mom and dad, I know I probably shouldn't have been taking pics while driving!) :)
A sunset over I-80 – moments like this have made the 330 mile commute a gift rather than a chore (and yes, I know I probably shouldn’t have been taking pics while driving, but it was pretty!)

The past few months have been some of the most difficult of my life.

Since July 15, my husband has spent a grand total of 92 days in the hospital and undergone 26 surgeries to repair damage from an episode of diverticulitis. He’s still in the hospital, but the surgery cycle is over. His abdomen is healing and his wound from all of the abdominal washout procedures is finally closed.

I’ve spent most of those days with him except when I left to drive five hours home to take care of the house and teach.

Never in a million years would I have thought that teaching high school students would be such a welcome “break” from anything, but I’ve learned that hospitals, especially ICU units, are stressful places.

Nor did I ever dream that we would be spending these months in the hospital at all. My husband went from hiking with me one day, to the hospital two days later, and fighting for his life six weeks after that.

We had plans for this fall! Big plans!

Our youngest child was leaving the nest for college, and I had finally managed to secure a part-time teaching position.

We looked forward to more time together. I looked forward to having time to devote to writing with lessened work and parenting demands. I also had lists of goals I wanted to accomplish for my teen writing website,

My husband had a business to run, and he’d also drawn a bull elk tag – a BIG deal in our state.

Then, he landed in a hospital bed, and I landed in a hospital chair (which doubled as a bed some nights). Okay, it’ll only be a few days, I thought. We can handle this. Life will get back to normal shortly.

But then the days stretched into weeks, and he still wasn’t getting better.

I sat in the chair while he slept, “shoulding” on myself. Everyday, I had my bag of “stuff to do” next to my chair. Between making sure he was comfortable and all of the doctor visits and surgeries, I had a novel to revise, a website to keep updated, a journal to write in, and medical bills to sort.

I couldn’t do any of it. I couldn’t even read a book. This is not normal for me. I’m always doing something.

The most I could manage was to play solitaire on my phone while he slept, thinking the entire time that I “should be __________.”

It made me feel worse, this constant “shoulding” on myself. I’d argue in my head in the manner that I think most people are familiar (but that if anyone could actually hear us, we’d all be considered worthy of a mental illness diagnosis).

“You’re just sitting here. You should be writing something. Why are you being so lazy.?” I’d yell at myself.

“Hush,” I’d answer back (to myself). “The only thing I should be doing is supporting my husband. Life’s on hold right now. Deal with it.”

“But, you should be doing something.”

“Shut UP!! I can’t focus in here with all the beeping and activity.” Then, I’d feel guilty, sad, and upset, so I’d start another game of solitaire.

The weeks then stretched into months. The surgeries continued, as did the “shoulding.”

It took almost three months from the beginning of this saga for me to realize that I have all the time in the world and the only thing that “shoulding” on myself was doing was making me feel like shit.

Why, with all that was happening in my life, was I working so hard at making myself more miserable?

It made zero sense when I looked at it that way, and guess what, within days of making a conscious effort to completely eradicate the word “should” (and “need to”) from my life, I finally feel like writing.

I’ve learned that, for me, “shoulding” zaps the joy out of any activity.

My big epiphany is that the intentions behind my actions have a huge impact on how I feel about any given situation or activity in any moment. I’ve learned that I’d much rather  approach my life from a place of joy, rather than obligation, even in the midst of a really difficult time.

Even when I’d come home and have to clean the toilet, I tried to eradicate “should.” If I had to do it, “should” do it, it feels yucky. Eeewh, who wants to do that? But if I do it so the bathroom is sparkly and shiny and smells good, it’s easier, not near the chore.

This isn’t easy by any means, and have I completely turned every moment into a more positive one? Absolutely not – I’ve definitely had my meltdown moments on this journey – but giving it a shot beats getting smothered under a big stinky pile of “should” every day.

Lessons in Free Verse

I suck at teaching poetry

Apparently I suck at teaching poetry.

Though I failed this year, thankfully the student who shared my shortcomings and his poetic discovery, also provided the solution for next year.

In my Creative Writing class, we spend the month of November participating in NaNoWriMo. Then in December, we take a break from cranking out hundreds or thousands of words each week and write poetry.

I am not a poet by any stretch of the imagination, but I do enjoy reading and sharing really great poems with the kids. All year, I try to share at least two to four poems a week, if not more.

During last December, our “poetry month,” I tried to find great poems to use as models.  I crafted lessons on imagery, descriptive details, and different types of poems. We talked about rhythm, rhyme, and word choice. We watched videos of amazing spoken word poems.

But, according to one of my seniors, I missed the mark, failing to teach one of the easiest strategies for crafting great poems.

I discovered my lapse when Erik submitted this reflective piece at the end of the semester, aptly titled “Flexibility.”

poetry teaching fail

All I needed to teach was the ENTER key?!?

I can do that. It will be one of my first poetry lessons for next year…

Free verse via ENTER

Blog Break

Ah . . . summer vacation, a time of lazy days sipping lemonade in a hammock with a good book . . . or not.  Maybe that’s what summer looks like for some people, but not this girl!

I just got back from Forensics Nationals, a super fun but not so relaxing week traveling with another coach and nine teenagers. Needless to say, sleep was somewhat elusive, and despite the best of intentions, I didn’t touch my blog.

Instead, I thought about my blog, a lot, and I’ve come to the conclusion, that I am going to be taking a break from my regular two posts a week. I started this blog and enforced a Monday, Thursday posting schedule with myself so that I would write. No matter what, I would sit my ass down in a chair and try to write something that maybe someone, somewhere would read. It didn’t always happen, but it did more often than not.

Over the past year, I have learned a few things:

  1. I found that I liked it – it was really fun to write, to push myself to think of something to write about. I feel like I found my voice in some ways.
  2. People actually read what I have to say – that, to me, is amazing!
  3. Sharing my writing at first was incredibly scary, but I got over that.
  4. Holding myself to a schedule that forced me to write was important to building my skills and confidence, but even if I don’t write every single day, I discovered I can pick up where I left off. Almost every single “writer” book, says to write everyday at the same time. Perhaps in some sort of dream world that doesn’t include kids, a husband, work, coaching, etc. that might happen, but my writing life is much more fluid than that and that’s okay! I managed to blog and finish a novel using my own process.

With those lessons in mind, I’ve decided to take a blog break. I’ll be posting, well, when I feel like it! I have not decided if I will pick my regular schedule back up this fall or not. I think I’ll decide when school starts.

In the meantime, I will be: revising my novel so that maybe someday people will be able to read that, taking a class to keep my teaching credential up to date, hopefully launching a website for teen writers, and maybe fitting in a quilt or two this summer. I’ll let you know how it goes.

What I look at when I run . . .

The ground. That is the depressing finish to this sentence. I went on a long (for me) run this morning as we are actually having a beautiful spring here in the high desert. Normally spring is non-existent. We just go from snow to mud to broiling hot without a whole lot of nice days in between, but not this year. It’s lovely, and I’ve made an early escape from the treadmill to the outdoors.

Despite the beauty of the spring mountains, I don’t look at this. . .

Or this. . .  

I look at this. . . 


I’ve been thinking about that these past few weeks because I’m struck by the beauty of the mountains greening up when I do look up, right before I look down again.

I think its because I’m a list maker, a life chunker. I like to break everything down into manageable pieces.  Because I live near the mountains, when I run I climb a lot of hills. If I look down, I can only see about four feet in front of me, especially if I wear a hat, and anyone, including me, can run four feet. If I look down, I can break down an entire run, especially the climbs, into four foot chunks.  I even have a “hill” mantra that I chant as I climb, “climb up this side, coast down the other, climb up this side, coast down the other.” If I only can see the next four feet of the hill, before I know it, I’ve made it to the top.

I do look up on the down hill sections, but I also often run on trails, and if I look up too much, I might trip.  I need to see where I’m going to avoid stepping in a hole, so I find my eyes glued to the ground right in front of my feet again.

The problem with this approach, I’m discovering, is that I can miss the whole big picture, the beauty of the journey.  It’s one thing to have a goal and go for it, even if it is only four feet, but not at the expense of the whole view.  I tend to forget that.

The funny thing is that I really do like getting outside and exercising – I just need to look up occasionally and enjoy it. Perhaps I need a new mantra, something like, “pull your head up (or out!), enjoy the journey, pull your head up, enjoy the journey.”

The Hero Cycle #1 – The Departure

I still haven’t finished my novel’s first draft, but last week I dug myself out of a bit of a plot hole by relying on . . . my education. Shocking, I know, but it’s nice when those English degrees actually come in handy.

I was having a hard time transitioning from the all the rising action to the climax when I started to look at my main character’s entire journey. I realized that she had, in many ways, followed the traditional “hero cycle” or “hero’s journey” as discussed by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work A Hero with a Thousand Faces. I’m not sure how this escaped me to this point, but it had.

The literary theory behind the hero’s journey involves the basic premise that all literature contains “archetypes” or recurring patterns in myths and stories worldwide. The hero’s journey is one of these patterns, and by understanding the journey, we can then understand the story, the hero, and possibly ourselves or our world a little bit better.

So how does all this apply to writing? It applies because it works. As readers we instinctively understand the steps that a hero must take in order to, well, become a hero. If one of those steps is missing, somehow we know it, and as writers including all of the steps of the journey can not only deepen our work, but just make a well-developed story. It can fill in those missing holes.

Though it might sound complicated, the archetype of the hero cycle is not. Simba in The Lion’s King and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars are two heroes who follow it almost to the letter.  If you like the movie The Sandlot, Bennie follows a hero cycle when he dreams of Babe Ruth and faces “the Beast.”

The first stage of the Hero Cycle is called The Departure. It is made up of three stages: The Call, The Threshold, and The Helper.  If you research this, you will find a large variety of stages in the cycle and fancy names.  I’m writing about the eight major stages that make the most sense to me and that I teach to my high school students.

In the Call, the hero is somehow “called” to action. This might be through a dream, somebody literally crying out for help, or as in Luke Skywalker’s situation, his family is killed and he finds a robot with a weird princess message on it. Harry Potter gets called by a letter and then a giant on a flying motor cycle. It can be anything as long as it starts the hero on his journey and in some way changes the status quo that is his life.

The next step is the Threshold. This is where the hero decides he’s either going to accept the call and “go for it,” or if he likes life as it is, he stays put and is not a hero after all. A hero chooses to step through the door, or “threshold,” into his new role. He may not be comfortable with this; he may refuse it outright several times, but ultimately, a true hero will accept the call.  Again, think of Luke, Simba, or Harry Potter. They all embark on journeys to help save themselves or their world, but they aren’t necessarily sold on the whole idea at first.

The third piece of “The Departure” is “The Helper.” This stage provides the hero with some sort of aid which might be supernatural in nature or it might just be an object that the hero believes will help him to survive. For example, Simba has his friends and the monkey also gives him advice. Bennie in The Sandlot has his shoes that help him run faster and jump higher. Athena repeatedly helps Odysseus in The Odyssey. Luke has Obi Wan Kenobi and the force. Harry gets a wand and two true friends.  In essence, every traditional hero has some sort of object or people that help them along the way.

I’ll write more about the next two stages of the hero cycle over the next two weeks. Even if you don’t think you’re writing or even reading about a traditional hero, you might be surprised to find how prevalent this archetypal pattern appears in both contemporary and historical fiction. It really does speak to us, it just makes for a good story, and now I know it can rescue us when we’re stuck.

The hero’s journey image is from the Wikimedia Commons, a freely licensed media file repository.

On Expectations

As they say, anticipation is half the fun. We get to imagine perfect outcomes for any experience we may dream up, but when the job, book, vacation, or even the restaurant I’ve just tried doesn’t live up to my expectations, disappointment ensues.  Expectations make me focus on the outcome, not the journey, and I wonder what opportunities I have missed out on because I decided on the expected outcome before I  had the experience.  That sounds ridiculous, but its the truth.

I live in Nevada, home to slot machines in each and every grocery store. Gambling exists because of this whole idea of focusing on the outcome – players think if they just “play” one more time they’ll win big, with no attention paid to what’s happening right now which is, “OMG, I’m losing all my money!!” I tend to do this (though not with gambling) because it is often far more fun to think about possibilities rather than “what is” or “what I should be doing right now to make that possibility happen.”

This past week, I was needing some creative inspiration for a quilt, and I came across this video. It was on a site on Design Principles, which I found kind of funny, but  I loved the concrete example of people stepping up to meet expectations.  Check it out – it’s really cool!

What is the lesson here? People step up to meet expectations others have for them.  They don’t just lead to disappointment but to people achieving great things.

Last week I had a fishbowl style Socratic Seminar in two of my Inclusion 10th grade English classes.  An inclusion class just means that there are 5-10 kids in the class that struggle with the subject.  They’re generally kids who have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan ie. they require special ed. services). I co-teach it with a Special Ed teacher, so we can give those kids the support they need. It works really well because it includes kids, rather than excludes them by parking them in the “resource room.”

I have used socratic seminars in honors classes and wasn’t sure how a population of students who tend not to be quite so engaged would do. The seminar entails putting six desks in the middle of the room in a circle. The rest of the desks are set in a larger circle facing in.  Six students start in the middle and begin their discussion on whatever text we have been reading, in this case Elie Wiesel’s Night.  They then proceed to have a discussion.  If somebody wants to go in, they get up, quietly tap on the shoulder of one of the people in the middle, and the students trade spots.

The kids loved it.  I only had one student out of almost 60 (in two classes) who refused to enter the circle. They didn’t want to quit talking. Students who never speak up in class got upset when somebody “tapped them out.” My co-teacher and I were shocked.  These kids put my own book club to shame with the depth of their responses and their reliance on the text to support their opinions.

The kids were prepared. They had done the reading. They had written responses to the reading, and prepared “Big Questions” (questions that don’t have one right answer) to ask about it. I had also told them that I had only ever done this in honors classes, and it was up to them to make it work.  I set the expectation high and they stepped up.

So what’s the lesson here? I need to raise the bar, not only for myself but for my students and even my own children. Not so high that they can’t be met, but high enough that I force both myself and my kids out of the status quo where many of us (myself included) happily schlump along.

Are you a Super Hero?

I participated in my final regular season Forensics/Speech and Debate tournament as head coach this weekend, and last night at the awards, each of the coaches shared something they had learned from participating in this thing we call Speech and Debate.

One shared that he had learned that the effective use of language to manipulate, persuade, or change people’s thinking was a super power. I completely agree. If we think about all of the language we see, hear, and use each day that is shared in the name of persuading us to buy a product, behave in a specific way, or agree/disagree with a belief, it is difficult to disagree.

The coach ended his talk by saying that the responsibility of using this particular super power is huge, and like all super powers it must be used only for good.  We all envisioned Spiderman when he said that and the 100+ high school students cracked up, but he made a great point.

Though he was talking to a room full of speakers, I instantly thought of my writing.  When we write words that others will read, whether through a blog, novel, story, essay, article, or even website content, we have some sort of purpose. Generally those are to inform, persuade, or entertain, but in each case, we somehow influence our readers. That is power.

I’ve been thinking, am I using that power for good?   Are you?

(Image is Royalty Free clipart from Microsoft Office.)