Category Archives: deep thoughts

A quarter of a century ago

Twenty-five years is a such long time, over half of my lifetime.

On September 2, 1992 the temperature was somewhere in the 80s, a nice sunny California fall day. It was warm enough that I was glad that my simple white dress was made of cotton lawn fabric and had short sleeves as we snapped a few photos after our wedding ceremony in the midday sun.

There were so many things I didn’t know that day as I knelt at an altar and agreed to the LDS vows of a forever marriage. For example I would have been devastated to know that three close family members who were present at the ceremony would die too soon. My father would only live two more years because of pancreatic cancer, I would lose my brother-in-law to lymphoma five years later, and my grandmother a decade after that. I couldn’t foresee that I would move more than 15 times in those 25 years or that the wedding gift that I received that day, of a sewing machine from my mother, would become one of the very few possessions that would travel with me for each of those moves.  And of course it was completely beyond my imagination that the eternal wedding vows I agreed to that day would, seventeen years later, be erased by the action of a stake president when he excommunicated my spouse from the LDS Church, or that a year after that I would file for a civil divorce.
latte

Perhaps above all, I could not have imagined that 25 years later I would find myself sitting in a sleeveless polka-dotted sundress in a hipster cafe in Los Angeles sipping a latte, once again a newlywed, as Stijn and I discussed which light fixture would look best in our living room.

Sunday thoughts

in the courtyard of the Mutter Museum

in the courtyard of the Mutter Museum

It’s the quiet before the storm here, a few days alone before the family arrive for the holidays.  I am still not used to the rhythm of the holidays sans children.  I put the ornaments on the tree myself, reveling in the memories of each one.

I still only use the same small batch of ornaments that we’ve collected over the years.  I wonder sometimes if the secret santa who gave us a set of cheap tin angels in 1992 ever thought that they would still be on our tree 25 years later, not to mention every ornament that I made in grade school, on our tree alongside the ones that my children made.  Though it would be so easy to buy new stylish decor, I never feel the impetus to do so.

Which reminds me of a conversation that I had at a holiday party last weekend.  I met someone new and mentioned that I’d moved to Orange just as soon as my kids finished school in Irvine.

“Weren’t they sad about your selling the family home?,” she asked.

It was a stranger, one I wasn’t ready to fill in on the backstory of my patchwork life.  I am not sure how she would have made sense of our moving eight times in those last three years while the kids were finishing high school.  While I can so easily tell the stories of the rat house, the whale house, and that time that seven sailors were sleeping in the living room, I didn’t this time.  I simply said that we were all ready for a fresh start…

I had a similar feeling a month ago when a colleague asked how I was spending Thanksgiving.  I told them I was skipping the holiday and traveling to Philadelphia to visit my daughter.  I could see that they don’t really understand why I would opt out of the TDay to wander a strange city on my own and pop in to visit Em on her campus.

But it was a lovely trip.  The weather so cold and so bright.  When she wasn’t busy studying we went to the Mutter and the Barnes and the map room of the downtown library.  She showed me her favorite study spot in the campus library and her favorite trees.  We had coffee at Hobbs and water ice at her pizza place and noodles at her noodle place.  We found a swingset by the Friends’ Meetinghouse and swang and swang.  I felt the pull in my stomach as I pumped my legs up into the air I swung back and forth and felt so young and so old all at the same time.  Remembering myself as a young girl who wanted to swing so high, always reaching out my toes into the big blue.  And remembering the hours (upon hours) that I pushed Em in the playground swings, relishing her squeals as she flew higher and higher and further away from me.

When I wasn’t with Em I walked and wandered Philly.  I stood in line for Independence Hall and went on the tour along with the schoolchildren and families, all of us rubbing our hands together and stomping our feet to keep warm while the wind whipped at us as we queued.

It was all worth the wait when we finally got inside and the tourguide told us about the signing of the declaration, reciting those famous words in a practiced voice:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…

I looked out the tall windows into the courtyard where we had just waited, to see dozens  still in line.  The wind was outside was gusting, and yellow leaves were swirling and dancing in the golden light of the winter afternoon.

 

Sunday evening

Yesterday I went to the farmer’s market, my mouth watering for the heirloom tomatoes sold by my favorite vendor.  I bought two last week and they are the tastiest tomatoes that I’ve had that I haven’t grown myself.  She had just three left and I bought them all.  I had the first on a salad of spicy lettuce for my lunch and it was just as good as I had hoped it would be.

This morning I spent my extra hour in the garden, talking to our winter tomato plants that are just beginning to blossom.  They are thriving in this not-winter weather and I expect to have fruit soon.  I suppose we’ve gone a bit overboard, as we always seem to do, and  I am looking forward to having the problem of too many tomatoes.tomato plants

This afternoon I went to an intensive yoga workshop, “on the ropes.”  I hung upside down and did forward bends and backbends while suspended in loops of heavy rope hanging from the walls in my teacher’s studio.  While I suspect that I will be moving a bit slowly tomorrow as a result of my time hanging around this afternoon, it is such a delicious feeling to stretch and bend and twist and breathe into my body.  To push it harder than I think it can go.  As I walked home from the workshop I marveled that this is the thing that is middle age.  To have the freedom and the flexibility to choose to exercise for an afternoon just because it’s what I want to do.

And then afterwards I puttered around the house doing laundry and cooking dinner and watching a bit of Netflix.  A pair of missionaries knocked on my door as I was puttering.  When I answered the bell they greeted me by name, saying that they’d just received my contact information and that they were excited to meet me.

I was still wearing my yoga clothes, my bare shoulders revealing more than my tan lines.  I knew I couldn’t invite them inside, because I am an adult woman at home alone and that would not be appropriate.  They smiled and they told me they were from Utah and Texas and asked if they could come again soon.  I was tempted to tell them to google me when they got home, but instead I thanked them for their kindness and explained that I would not be interested in future visits.

I looked in their eyes and saw my brothers and so many other young mormons I have loved. I wondered which one of them had shared my address with the Church and wondered if they knew how sad I was to have my location known to the local congregation.

They asked how long I had been a member and I told them it has been for all of my life.

In that moment I remembered being wrapped in white linen, when holy oil was swabbed on my forehead and scalp and clavicles and spine, when I sat on a throne and was anointed to become both a priestess and a queen.  The details are still vivid, despite it being an eternity ago.

I wished the missionaries goodnight and turned off the porch light after they exited the front gate.

morning thoughts

 


Last night I dreamed about my cat who was dying.  It was my cat, but not my cat (in the ways that dreams work).  She was Toby, but not Toby.  She was curled into a ball on my chest and was shaking and heaving.  And as much as I tried, I could not remember her name.

I woke to the sinus ache of dry hot air, another night of the “Santa Anas,” yesterday’s temps peaking at 104 according to my car’s thermometer.  I immediately stepped outside to check the progress of the garden.  The peas that I planted a few weeks ago are surviving the dryness, thanks to a regular dousing.  The Siberian winter tomato varieties that we planted a few weeks ago are thriving.  We’ve never planted winter tomatoes before, but it seemed worth a try and the horticulturist at our local nursery was insistent that they would set fruit.  I wonder if they are as acclimated to dry desert winds as they are to the shortened days of the season.  They already have several blossoms apiece.

I am barefoot in the garden though I probably should not be.  We’re rebuilding our back house and the ground around the garden is covered in splinters of wood and screws and small sharp things.  But I take my chances anyways, today.

I sit on the pavers in the sun, near the plants, and marvel that it’s fall and yet it’s hotter than the summer.  Though this happens every year, it always feels strange and new when the dry winds blow.

My son moved home this week, for awhile.  It’s a strange thing to have my kids around–it is so easy to share with them, everything.  Yet I struggle with parenting them, as adults, never knowing how much to guide, how much to let them do for themselves.  We went grocery shopping together yesterday afternoon and as he put the shopping cart away he deftly lifted the entire thing over the parking lot median, as if it was as light as a gallon of milk.  I am jealous of his easy strength, and am reminded of my middle age.  The time when I carried him on my hip feeling more than two dozen lifetimes ago.

For lunch he and I have a salad of spicy mesclun lettuce from the garden, picked at midday.  The leaves are wilted and limp, but have so much flavor that they overpower the small grape tomatoes that I’ve added into the mix.

The house is full of the smells of fresh bread, as Stijn is baking his next round of sourdough.  We watched Michael Pollan’s “Air” documentary a few days ago and ever since I have craved bread, remembering all of the dark and rich loaves of Scandinavia.  Little else is as interesting to me right now, as that.

Teacher | Technologist | Traveler

This morning I did my regular WordPress maintenance tasks: upgrading to the latest stable release, updating plugins, clearing out spam comments, etc.  And as I did so I looked at the tagline on my portfolio site and realized that it needed updating.

It was:

tagline photo So now it has a bit more alliteration, and better reflects my current professional identity.  Because while I am a historian, I write and think more about teaching than about history.

So it is now:

new tagline photoThere are so many other things I could put there: Paddler, Reader, Gardener, Friend, etc.  But for right now, these three words seem the best fit.

I am a teacher

photo of a powerpoint slide from a talk by Martha Burtis

Image is from Martha Burtis’ keynote talk at the Digital Pedagogy Institute that I attended earlier this summer. Her full talk is available here.

I am a teacher, and am happiest when I am grappling with how to share what I know and what I think with others.  Thus, I am fortunate that I hold a position where I am teaching nearly everyday–either through technology training or through teaching courses at ChapmanU.

With this new semester, as with each new semester, I am considering how I can improve my teaching skills.  And I’ve determined that incorporating a more regular reflective practice will be the best way that I can improve my teaching.  I’ve written about this a bit before on my blog, but I am now committing to make this a more explicit focus of my blogginb.

So, to start off, I will invoke one of my greatest mentors and fellow Friend, Parker J Palmer, who asks:

“How can I develop the authority to teach, the capacity to stand my ground in the midst of the complex forces of both the classroom and my own life?”

He clarifies, that by “authority” he means:

In a culture of objectification and technique we often confuse authority with power, but the two are not the same. Power works from the outside in, but authority works from the inside out. We are mistaken when we seek “authority” outside ourselves, in sources ranging from the subtle skills of group process to that less-than-subtle method of social control called grading. This view of teaching turns the teacher into the cop on the comer, trying to keep things moving amicably and by consent, but always having recourse to the coercive power of the law.

External tools of power have occasional utility in teaching, but they are no substitute for authority, the authority that comes from the teacher’s inner life. The clue is in the word itself, which has “author” at its core. Authority is granted to people who are perceived as “authoring” their own words, their own actions, their own lives, rather than playing a scripted role at great remove from their own hearts. When teachers depend on the coercive powers of law or technique, they have no authority at all.

I am painfully aware of the times in my own teaching when I lose touch with my inner teacher, and therefore with my own authority. In those times I try to gain power by barricading myself behind the podium and my status while wielding the threat of grades. But when my teaching is authorized by the teacher within me, I need neither weapons nor armor to teach.

Authority comes as I reclaim my identity and integrity, remembering my selfhood and my sense of vocation. Then teaching can come from the depths of my own truth—and the truth that is within my students has a chance to respond in kind.

His words remind me of something that I have grappled with so many times as I’ve stood in front of a classroom:  that feeling of vulnerability and exposure that comes from the unpredictability of human interaction, as well as the actual physical limitations of my own body to enact and enable a teaching experience.

Perhaps I feel this more keenly because of my awareness that my body can be awkward in the physical space of the classroom.  On days when I am using crutches it can be nearly impossible to deftly use the podium computer or to meander around the desks of the classroom.  Or on some days when I am physically spent and need to sit instead of stand, I feel the challenge of engaging students with my less-than-powerful physical presence.  And of course even on days when I am standing confidently there is the sense that my cyborg body is speaking louder than the words that I am sharing with the students.

But then there is the flipside of that, the fact that I am more physically vulnerable can break down the barriers that might be typical between professor and student.  If we all gather our chairs in a circle on a day that I need to sit, the students also move away from the spaces of their desks and the trappings of their classroom role.  On those days there is no barricade of podium and desk.  On those days learning can happen in ways that are quite different from the learning that occurs when I am delivering content from a screen.

Given that I have little control over the days that I can stand in front of my students versus those that I cannot, I try to do the best I can to prepare for whatever might happen when I enter the classroom.  A teaching exercise that I used in the past might have to be altered, or a student might need to run the technology if I cannot.  If nothing else, it keeps the teaching experience varied, fresh, and open to all kinds of learning possibilities.

So, to return to reflection about my teaching experiences this week, here is a list of a few moments that stand out:

  • Creating the class rules in my HIST 233: Disability in American Life course, in a way that fosters a welcoming experience for all class members
  • Giving each of my students in my Introduction to Digital Humanities course, their own WordPress site, as a sandbox domain where they can write/play/experiment and carry out the weekly practicum exercises for our class.
  • Supporting dozens of faculty in using the Chapman ePortfolios platform for creating their T&P dossiers, and in doing so, helping them to create the best-possible digital representations of their scholarly efforts.  The wide gamut of content that faculty can embed and link to from their dossiers is not only remarkable, but represents the best and brightest work done by early-career scholars at our university (and never ceases to inspire me to do better work myself).
  • Leading a workshop on how to use Classroom-Response Systems at a time where we had a major technical snafu that resulted in my presentation being derailed.  Having to accept that the workshop was unrecoverable in that moment (there was no graceful alternative) and not letting my frustration about something that I couldn’t control, completely derail the conversation about how instructors could use technologies for student-response.
  • Allowing students to choose the platform for their collaborative sharing:  one class created a closed Facebook group and the other opted to create a Slack Team.
  • Having my Intro to DH students read the “Letters to a Future Student” from my previous classes.  Seeing that this exercise increased their enthusiasm for what they will learn this semester as well as their sense of courage to try new/hard technologies.

As I think about this list and all that has already happened in this Fall semester thus far, I am feeling pleased about my efforts.  As Palmer reminds us,

Good teachers join self, subject, and students in the fabric of life because they teach from an integral and undivided self; they manifest in their own lives, and evoke in their students, a “capacity for connectedness.” They are able to weave a complex web of connections between themselves, their subjects, and their students, so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves…

as powerful and as strong…

Last week we did a fairly strenuous canoe paddle, more than 60km, in a remote northern area of British Columbia.  The paddling wasn’t so daunting (3-4 hours per day of solid work), but it was the portages from lake to lake, the lightning storms, and the persistent pelting rain that quickly dampened my sleeping bag and all of my clothing that took their toll.

Now that it’s over, however, so much of that difficulty is forgotten.  And instead what remains are the gorgeous images imprinted into my memory and onto the roll of film that we shot as we traveled.  Such as this one, taken on the home stretch to Bowron Lake:

glassy waters(Note: the horizon is slightly crooked due to the boat leaning a bit to the right side that morning)

As I was writing in my journal when the journey was completed, the first thing I put on my list of lessons learned was:

I like to do hard things

And it’s true.  The stretch of an ambitious endeavor makes me happy.  Doing the mundane, the repetitive, the easily achieved task…boring.  I thrive when presented with a challenge, which is why the trip to British Columbia was so much more appealing than a resort stay or some other leisure activity.

While on this trip, these two books, Tracks and Paddling My Own Canoe accompanied me everywhere:

two books for my travels later this month…journey narratives ftw #JSLFL #booklover

A photo posted by @janaremy on


I just finished reading Tracks today, which is a book about a woman who walked across the Australian desert with four camels in the 1970s.  At the close of the text, this quotation jumped out at me, as a better expression of my thoughts about hard things, than I expressed myself in my journal (emphasis my own):

As I look back on the trip now, as I try to sort out fact from fiction, try to remember how I felt at that particular time, or during that particular incident, try to relive those memories that have been buried so deep, and distorted so ruthlessly, there is one clear fact that emerges from the quagmire.  The trip was easy.  It was no more dangerous than crossing the street, or driving to the beach, or eating peanuts.  The two important things that I did learn were that you as powerful and as strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision.