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.

Our Impending Empty Nest

empty nest
During a wood cutting expedition a few years ago, my husband cut down a dead tree and found this little treasure which he saved and brought home.

Somehow, I’ve returned to the emotional rollercoaster I rode when I was pregnant with my son twenty years ago. On the way home from work this week, I had myself in tears over our forthcoming “empty nest” status.

Then, when I did get home, I had to blink back more tears because of the actual EMPTY NEST on our front porch. It’s cool, but a bit too literal of a reminder of what is going to happen in the next six months.

It doesn’t take much to set either myself or my husband off when we think of our kids leaving. What the hell are we going to do?

Our weekends will no longer be filled with soccer games, waiting up for kids to get home, and just the general noise and activity of having teenagers in and out of the house.

On the one hand, I tentatively welcome it because I’ll have more time to write, quilt, and even read – all those things I love to do but have to fit into the tiny crevices of my life between work, family, and kids.

But then, I wonder if those silent spaces, that I don’t even realize are filled with noise right now, might grow too big.

I can make myself cry thinking about it, at least until I get reminders of life with small children.

My daughter has chosen to go to a school in California, about twelve hours from our house. It’s a long way. Yesterday, I was emailing a college buddy about it. She started her family much later than I started mine, and her kids have just begun elementary school. She’s got years to go before she has to face her babies leaving home.

I was expressing my concerns about the distance we’ll have to drive to see my daughter, and she sent me this response:

“Yeah, but as you guys get to be really F-ing old you can drive to Truckee, stop at our place there…then drive to the bay area and stop there [at her house]…and then remind yourselves how happy you are that your kids aren’t still in elementary school….I’m at the zoo right now.”

I about spit my coffee at my computer screen I laughed so hard when I read that. And, if I really give it an honest look, she’s right. I thank God I’m more concerned with registering my daughter for dorm housing than registering her for kindergarten.

I think we’ll be just fine.

I’ll Keep my Laptop, Thank You

Yesterday, a friend tweeted this article on The Guardian, “Unthinkable? Bring Back Typewriters.” While the author makes some great points about how using a typewriter slows the writer down, thereby making writers more intentional about word choices, and how typewriters remove the distracting allure of the internet, I’d have to say, “hell no!!” I’ll keep my laptop thank you very much.

In fact, I wonder if the author ever had to actually type something that mattered on a typewriter, like a research paper or even an important letter. If so, I think the nostalgia for the click of the keys would quickly wear off.

I still have my antique ribbon typewriter. It has lived buried in the back of my daughter’s closet for years. When I was seven or eight years old, my Dad brought it home for me to write my stories on. It made me official. I was a writer.

I never use it, but I’ve lugged the thing with me for my entire life. It weighs around 50 lbs. and represents my youthful attempts at writing, my dreams to become a writer someday.

My ancient typewriter that made me feel like a true writer.
My ancient typewriter that made me feel like a true writer.

I actually don’t remember writing that much on it. I remember spending more time trying to get it to work so I could write. The ribbon would come unwound, little mechanical metal pieces would get stuck. I remember jamming more than one butter knife in to get it going again.

You also have to hit the keys hard to get them to work. Fingers don’t fly over these old keyboards. Nope, typing a sentence gives the fingers a pretty good workout. One letter at a time.

If you hit more than one key at a time, the little letter bars fly up at the same time and stick to each other, creating a mess and nothing gets typed. It’s the equivalent of your computer screen freezing, but in this case all you have to do is reach a hand in and unstick everything. There are definitely days that I wish I could do that with my laptop.

All the keys stuck together in a wad. This happened a lot.
All the striker bars stuck together in a wad. This happened a lot.

Typing is a sensory experience unlike writing on a computer. There is the sound of the letter striker bars (or whatever they’re called) hitting the paper and the carriage. You have to watch where you are because at the end of each line, the typewriter doesn’t automatically “wrap” around. As the typist, you have to reach up and move the carriage back to the left margin. It’s labor intensive. Mistakes cannot be fixed.

The letters are also quirky, with each typewriter having its own “fingerprint.”

The Letters
The Letters

I loved reading mysteries as a kid (and still do), and I remember typewriters often providing clues. Detectives would study typewriter fonts with the forensic intensity that today’s CSI investigators go after DNA evidence.


No MS Word conformity here. My typewriter has a definite style. The “e’s” are all red. For some reason it dropped down a half a line halfway through the word “kind.” If I had committed a crime and left a clue on my typewriter, I’d definitely be caught.

Perhaps it would be good to create clues for a mystery on this, but I think that’s about it. I won’t be cranking out any stories on this old thing, but I also don’t think I’ll get rid of it. It’s comforting to know that even though I haven’t used it since the early 1980’s, I still can. My computer would never work like that. I could not shove it in a kid’s closet, have kids sit on it during games of hide and seek, leave it there for 20+ years, pull it out one day, write something on it and then print it to paper like I did with my typewriter this morning.

I have no idea whatever happened to any of the stories I wrote, or even if I ever finished a whole story on it due to all of the issues with actually using it. Even so, when I think of my typewriter, I think of my 8 year old self imagining stories, and for that alone, I’ll hang on to it. It reminds me that yes, I am a writer.

What is it about Pomp and Circumstance?

Graduation at my school happened last Friday evening.  I sat next to a cooler on the track, sweat dripping, and gauged sold water bottles to all the unprepared poor souls who didn’t bring any in with them. My Forensics kids scored with the unseasonably warm 90 degree weather as our water bottle sale was the last fundraising effort before we leave for nationals next week. We pretty much cleaned up and now have enough money to eat AND play!

Every year, graduation brings mixed emotions. I’m always sad to see some of my favorite students leave, but its also fun to watch them get ready to fly. But every year, that damn song gets me. As soon as the band begins to play it, I get goose bumps (even in the heat), and my eyes tear up. For my own graduations, that song represented the excitement of moving on, now as a parent it represents the other side of that same coin.

The entire time it played, I kept thinking that next year, my oldest baby will be donning a medieval outfit of his own and marching onto the football field to the traditional tune.

I am not ready, even a little bit, for that to happen. Graduation from preschool? That was fun. 8th Grade graduation was a sweet celebration that brought his first “date” for a dance. He was home by 8:30. High school graduation? There is no way that either me or he will be ready for him to move out! We have one year to finish teaching him . . . so much! How can we possibly prepare him? Um . . . we can’t.  That scares me. He’s just going to have to give it a go and learn like we all did.

I remember when we counted his age in weeks, and then months, and finally years. The countdown in the other direction has started. I used to have years before he was ready to leave home. We have now transitioned into months. He will be graduating in twelve months and leaving in fifteen. Soon enough, graduation will be a matter of weeks away.

I had not thought of any of that until the damn song started to play. I looked around at all the mothers who were there to see their children graduate. Some of them cried, some cheered, some barely held it together.  I’m a year away, and I was in the last group – not good.

My son is one of the most laid back people on the planet. I’m not. Clearly, its time for me to learn some of the lessons he tries to teach me. “Just chill mom,” he says to me fairly regularly. “It’s all good.”

I know it is. I know he’ll be just fine. I know “Pomp and Circumstance” is merely a song, but its also one I’m not sure I like very much anymore.


Faced with the daunting task of raising thousands of dollars to take five kids to the Forensics National Tournament in Indianapolis this summer, I have spent the last several weeks enconsced in fundraising activities such as sending kids out in their professional business attire to solicit (beg) for donations, running concession stands, and supporting parents who held a giant yard sale – all typical fundraising activities.

Then I got a phone call and found out my team and I had been volunteered to join forces with another team and head up the first ever McTeacher’s night in our town.

“You signed us up for what?!? I asked.

“Working at McDonalds!!” my former friend answered a little too gleefully. “We make 20% of all total sales for the time we work. It’s a great fundraiser!”

I spent my entire day yesterday dreading my shift. I put myself through college waiting tables, and to be totally honest, I was NOT looking forward to returning to the food service industry. But I gotta tell you, working the drive thru is fun despite the fact that I kept getting in trouble because I slowed down the line.  I ended up knowing way too many drive thru customers and I had to at least say hi! It’s a small town.

Did you know drive thru’s have a timer that tracks the average number of seconds it takes to get a vehicle through? I had no idea.  I didn’t do much to help the crew’s averages, in fact, I probably would have gotten fired for being a bit too chatty.

But I did get to say hi to our vet, a gal from my husband’s office, a teacher I used to work with, two teachers I currently work with, former and current students, you get the picture. I even handed one of them my phone to take this shot which severely impacted our times, but we had a good laugh – people were not expecting to see me in the drive thru!

I finally got banned from hitting the little button that said we were done with an order because I hit it too early one time and deleted the order before it was served – oops! Thankfully the customer had her receipt, so the non-McTeachers could still fill her order.

I did some fascinating people watching which is a fun exercise in terms of character development. I never would have considered the drive thru as a good people watching place – who knew? You get to see inside people’s cars which is like a little window into their world.  The best (or worst) was the lady (thankfully in the passenger seat) who had clearly just left a casino and had her cigarette and cocktail in hand.  Apparently she needed some nuggets to go with her drink. I think I’d agree that a drink could definitely make them go down a little easier.

There was the angry grandma who was not so happy to get her “happy” meals for the also not so happy grandkids in the back seat. Another family had their dog in the bed of their truck. It was his first time ever to experience a drive thru, so we had to share a moment together. He was pretty excited about the whole experience.

You could also tell the weather has been nice by the somewhat shocking number of men who were beet red sunburned.  Apparently they don’t keep sun screen in their trucks, but I was surprised to find that a ton of people keep cigarettes in their vehicles! I clearly live in a secluded tobacco-free high school world because I had no idea how many people smoke in their cars. My 17 year old supervisor assured me that actually most people do in fact smoke in their cars and her wealth of experience in drive thru’s has provided solid evidence for reaching that conclusion.

The only bad part of the experience was that it reminded me of my age. The drive thru people are in charge of filling the drinks.  This is fine but the screen that shows all the drinks is way up high which means we had to crank our necks all the way back to see it. Then, being just a wee bit competitive I kept having to look at the little second counter to see how we were doing which seriously crinked my neck.

Unfortunately, McTeacher Night might end up with McChiropractor afternoon.

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.”

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.