Beginnings and Endings

The student’s email reads, in part, “I am just checking, because I know grades have to be posted by 5:00 p.m. today…”

I laugh, a little smug; it is 2:30 on Thursday, and grades, of course, are not due until TOMORROW afternoon. But something niggles, and, just to be sure, I pull up the announcement from the registrar’s office. And by gum, here’s a shock: the student is right. There WAS a Friday due date, but it was LAST Friday…and that was just for grades for graduating seniors in this winter term.

All the rest of the grades are due TODAY.

It is a good thing all my late papers are in and graded.

I quickly scroll through each class record, through each discrete assignment; I make sure I haven’t missed grading a paper or neglected to record a bit of homework. Then, thanking my lucky stars for helpful tabulating technology,–and for that nudging student email– I post my grades.

Then I bundle up my class paraphernalia, put it all away in my sturdy school bag, and run upstairs to get ready for my meeting.

It doesn’t sink in until I am driving home through dark streets, through weary neighborhoods where, still, tree lights shine through windows and jolly inflatables bob on bare, tiny, front lawn patches. Headlights blare at me as swift cars careen around curves, and I turn the wheel, slow and sure, and I think, sudden realization blooming: This semester is OVER.

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I signed myself up for way too much to do this Fall…for too many classes, too many obligations, too many commitments. They ate up my time, all those ‘yeses’ that I said. They sucked the leisure out of the days like a vacuum sucks up M&M’s dropped heedlessly on a carpet…the opportunity for sweetness and fun tarnished and then vanished.

By the time I realized that, it was too late to renege, to say, “Oh, I’m sorry; I didn’t think I’d be THIS busy. Never mind!”

But I gave myself the sternest talking to. Things, I admitted, have got to change. Just let me get through this semester intact, I vowed, and then we’ll make a new plan.

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For my Comp I final, I ask my students to imagine they are writing to a person contemplating enrolling in the class but unsure if they’re ready for the challenge. I ask the students to reflect on each facet of the course, to think about what we did and why we did it, and to think about how—or whether—they have grown as writers.

One of my best and brightest students decided to go a step farther and to wax poetic about the instructor. This is what, in part, that student wrote:

I will use this chance to tell you about my English Composition teacher. Her name is Ms. Pam. She is a very nice teacher. The funny thing is, the first time I saw her, I thought she was an elderly woman so she will get tired easily. But oh my goodness!

I read that and thought, Wait—what? An elderly woman??

And then I realized, damme, she’s right: I qualify for that description…even if I am what some call a “junior senior”…even if I retired early and haven’t quite reached the full, platform-shifting, age of 65.

I remember those bright young faces—not all 18, mind you (some a great deal older, several meaningful years younger)—looking at me warily on day one, and I realize that, behind one of them at least, thoughts like this were running: “Man, she’s OLD. Will she have enough energy to teach me what I need to learn? Will she stay awake long enough to do that???”

I am glad I earned that “…oh, my goodness!” But I have to admit the writer had some insight: I did get tired. I have to admit, too, that my Superwoman days, if indeed they ever existed, are firmly and decidedly over.

It is time to recalibrate. This old barge can’t plow along in the same way it’s been used to doing.

Which doesn’t mean we’re docking; oh, no, far from it. It just means that some time in port is needed to spread out the maps and adjust the journey.

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If someone asked me to create a cutesy plaque for the newly retired, I think I’d write these words on it: Don’t say yes to everything.

By saying yes to too many things, I wound up saying no, partly, to all of them.

No, I don’t have time to give this my full attention.

Yes, I will be there, but no, I won’t be entirely focused.

No, I won’t be able to give my home and my family the energy I want to expend on them if I commit to all these good causes.

There are so many good causes, but I can’t give them all my due diligence. It is hard to accept that I can only be effective by focusing and selecting.

Even junior seniors still have things to learn.

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The Christmas tree is up. We got that done last Sunday, squeezed the traditional festooning in between a hearty ham dinner and grading papers. I did a quick clean-up with the vacuum and duster; the boyos carried the heavy white bookshelf away from the window, and put it, at least temporarily, against the bare wall in the dining room. They lugged the long heavy box up from the basement, and we pulled out tree sections, and we assembled and fluffed.

Then Jim and I decorated while Mark added lights to the outdoors display.

“Aww,” Jim would say. “I forgot about this!” or, “Is this the one Aunt Dot gave me?” He would hold up a handmade pine cone Santa, one google eye missing, or a Hallmark ‘Baby’s First Christmas’ globe from 1990. We would talk about origins and debate just the right place to hang such a treasure.

Jim had Christmas tunes playing in the background.

I was thinking, When this is done, I’ll do five more papers.

I was thinking, Christmas cards will have to wait till next weekend.

We finished the tree, and I moved on to the next thing on the list.

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Last night, turning out the lights, extinguishing the fire, Mark said, “You know, that’s a pretty nice tree.”

And I looked at, really looked at, it for the first time.

It’s a beautiful tree.

This morning, I woke up early, at 5:00 a.m. I crept downstairs and lit the fire, and I turned the tree lights on. I put coffee on to drip and picked up a wonderfully frothy book—about a young English woman in dire straits who loses her London flat and whose only recourse is to travel to the wilds of Scotland with her sweet, mute son. On the shores of Loch Ness, she’ll work in a bookstore, and she’ll struggle to make a difference in the lives of three sullen, unloved children, and, of course, she will fall in love. Dusty drapes will be pulled aside, light will stream in, and miracles will happen in a warm, braw, heathery, British Isles kind of way.

I take a break when Mark comes down, and together, we chop ham and whisk eggs, make toast and pour juice, and, before 6 a.m., we eat a hearty breakfast. Mark is headed to the city, off to a conference lousy with lawyers; he needs fortification. He needs to go out into the cold morning protein-fueled.

I wash up the dishes and wipe down the counters, and, after Mark has sped out into the still-dark, I grab that book and slip back to the reading chair. Sandwiched between glow of tree and fire, I read the story, read until I reach the end; I know what will happen, but there are twists and turns along the way, and getting to that endpoint is a perfectly satisfying accomplishment.

I need these times, I realize: an hour spent inside a cozy, homey book with no pressing must-dos bobbing, like the smiling reminders on a newborn’s mobile, around my head.

***********************************

Somehow, in the last weeks, we have cleaned surfaces and set up the nativity scene, with its choir of mismatched angels cheering on the baby. We have hefted boxes of Christmas dishes from their shelves in the basement, made room in the cupboards and china cabinet, filled the sink with hot suds, and scrubbed down plates and bowls and mugs. The wreath on the front door sports a plush penguin, and a large ceramic penguin sits grinning on the brick step below. At dusk, Mark turns on the lights, and that ceramic penguin’s eyes gleam maniacally in the dark December night. Lights festoon a tiny tree that snuggles behind the maniac penguin, and lights encircle the big holly bush, and lights drape along the carport wall.

I don’t remember quite how we got all this done (some if it happened while I was squinting at a computer screen, typing notes on student papers), but the house is happily holiday-settled.

Today, we will unpack the Santas and put them throughout the house. After our trip to Columbus for Jim’s appointment, after dinner at a favorite Chinese restaurant, we’ll come home and turn the lights on, light the fire once again, and enjoy the flickering warmth.

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There are things to be done, even while the happy, homey, holy holiday season beckons. There are Spring syllabi to be created, though for only half as many courses. There is shopping and baking. There are those cards to spread out, so fresh and new and inviting, and there are messages to write on them.

There are people to remember, people who cannot be with us this year. There are voices that are stilled and laughter that has stopped, and I must think of ways to honor those that are dearly missed.

Some night soon I must get my a calendar out and take a hard, long realistic look at it, and at plans and dreams and fripperies and must-do’s—spread time and tasks all out  like puzzle pieces, and see what fits into the picture, and what must be discarded. I must open up my journal and write down what I’ve learned, write stern messages to future self, reminding me to balance.

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But, in the nooks and crannies of now, I celebrate the ending to a busy time, and teeter on the brink of this year’s holiday season. I’ll cling, for today or a couple of hours, to this fulcrum, to this time of clarity and insight.

And then I’ll forge ahead, elderly, yes; worn a bit, maybe; but not too tired to be excited about what comes next and how to pare the layers down to reveal the shining nugget of possibility, just waiting to be nurtured.

10 thoughts on “Beginnings and Endings

  1. Rebecca Allison

    Loved the part of student’s paper being so honest about first impressions. I have always felt I earned every gray hair, but what difference would it make to get rid of it, assuming that gray hair automatically tags me as elderly? Would that instill more confidence in my students that I can fulfill the goals they have for a class? Another interpretation your student could have had in noticing you are older was that you will bring wisdom, maturity, stability to the classroom!

    “By saying yes to too many things, I wound up saying no, partly, to all of them.” Oh, that volunteers everywhere would get this lesson and never automatically say yes without prayer and contemplation. Do some people like seeing their name on Boards or committees? I am talking about the ones who are only there in name, never showing up to meetings. It is tough when decisions are between “good” things. It would be so much easier if you were struggling between hanging out too much at a local bar and teaching a class or course as a volunteer service to your community.

    You have so many gifts and abilities, Pam.

    1. Thanks, Becky! I do think the wisdom of the elders ought to “re-become” one of our cherished treasures…and I believe that you are right in that some people like the sense of importance. Heck, maybe we all do, but if we can’t deliver, the importance dwindles down to words and promises… I think sometimes, too, I forget that other people with sparkling gifts and talents are there; I am NOT the only one who can do this particular thing. It’s a convoluted kind of arrogance when I think it’s all on me!

  2. Kim Allen

    You’re not elderly, you’re an elder! The native Americans have that beautiful way of approaching age. Last night I went to a Christmas party, when I was mentioning what I think were the twenty and thirty somethings (I can’t tell the difference anymore) I called them the “young ones” like my grandfather would. It was a defining moment for me. And then as I was transporting my 88 year old mother home I nestled in what the evening had been for me. Sharing conversation about what makes this time of life purposeful. Garden club speakers and refurbishing an old garden in a park for others to enjoy. Judging high school plays for a local professional theatre’s version of the Tony’s. Having enough resources to give the the AAA rescuer a big tip (my joy had to be expressed somehow) when he was able to come quickly and change my flat tire on a dark , rainy and cold road, making it possible for me to still attend the party. I was able to do theses things when I worked but they don’t feel like work, when I have other leisure time too, without having to worry how I support myself. It is a beautiful time of possibility. Instead of running, real and metaphorically I walk or hike, but I notice a lot more along the way, because I am attuned to it in only the way an aging perspective gives. Go Pam as you live your best life now! Free Agent!

    1. Free agent for sure!!!! I love this: “It is a beautiful time of possibility.” Time NOT to hide behind a myriad of obligations, but to search out the things with real meaning. Beautiful, Kim–thank you!

      1. Kim Allen

        Yes, those things that have real meaning and perhaps speak to a new calling. I am learning that I loved my job and still do things that speak to doing service. However, I don’t have to repeat things in my life. It was a good run, but now it is a new chapter being written, a new path to explore, so the “what” takes different forms. If I do too much of something without the balance of the things that replenish me, I lose my energy and become cranky, and I make mistakes like forgetting an apt. I realize as I am writing this, after reading your piece, that the loss of energy is not do to age, although I know that one too. It is because what I am doing or how I am doing it is not feeding my soul. We all know that sense of flow that comes from being emerged in something so joyfully that we lose sense of time, and we have the energy to match that. Reading a good book for hours, writing into the night or doing a fun art project or remodeling or reorganizing job. can do that for me. The joy of it or the unabashed feeling of satisfaction carries us through. I think the distinction is important as we age. Are we tired, or lack energy because we are older, or has our aging bodies been supplemented by a lack of feeding our soul. which is dragging us down. When we are lifted by something the match of energy is struck and ignited. And yes, we sleep like a log that evening, and maybe need a little more recuperation the next day.! But we are feeding our soul.. Thank you Pam for this opportunity for this reflection. I am going to play with that idea that when I have less energy, is there some way I am not feeding my soul and what can I do about it. Or in another conscious way, is there some self-care that I haven’t been doing that my body or mind or spirit needs to keep myself well tuned. Blessings to you this season.

  3. Your terror at the beginning of this post is what I felt as I read it. Well I remember those days of getting the grades in. SO stressful. Also because I commuted so far I often had to turn them in early because I couldn’t take a day to drive them in in the traffic because of my other job.
    OK, my turn: YOU rest now!!! Enjoy your holidays!

    1. Thanks, Luanne! I just enjoyed an afternoon of reading by the fire…just compensation for a frantic semester’s end. Hope you’re finding those restful moments in your busy days, too…

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