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And So It Begins…

Students in Writ 095 are currently working on their blogs. The first assignment is an “About Me” piece. Simple, right? Maybe not. “Pay attention to length,” said I, “and grammar and mechanics matter. This is a writing class, after all…”

What about you, Teach? (Spoken in a true, Vinnie Barbarino accent…look it up, you young’uns). Yeah, so I have been teaching at Helena College for five and a half years now, was tenured this last May, and plan to die in my heels. In other words, I’m pretty sure this is my last professional stop, despite my young age…and I have no plans to permanently retire. At some point, I’ll cut back to 3/4 time or part time…but teaching runs through my blood as much as merlot. Not gonna get loose of me in the immediate future.

So, teaching, English, writing, literature, learning, all these are some of my priorities in life. Student success is my biggest celebration, and I would not quit teaching if I were rich, but I’d like to try rich for a while…

I live alone, but I do have a cockatiel who’s my companion. His name is Leo, short for Leonardo, and he and I have weathered 20 plus years together. I have a son who’s 30 years old, and an ex-husband who I don’t write about but who was an important part of 25-plus years of my life. My other passions are hiking, kayaking, music, reading, and teaching, not in that order.

Fall semester 2017 is a new experience for me: it’s the first fall semester, ever, that I’ve entered college with the status of “single.” It’s the first fall semester that I’ve entered college without my dad. It’s not that my dad was especially critical to my teaching, but he was critical to my sense of self: I always had a mom and dad (lucky, I know). He died last October 31st. Every day since then has been, “the first _____ since Dad died.” November 1st will change that, but October 31st will be a tough day for me to survive.

You want to know “about me”? I was a mediocre high school student who grew into a pretty darn smart mom, who became a really smart college student who excelled, who became a competent, committed, caring college teacher, who lives her life to the best of her abilities without regret. Let’s get to work.

Fall Semester 2017

I know people who love fall (Gina!), and though it’s not my favorite season (summer!), it ranks as number two for me. As we move through August, into September, we are in that season between seasons. Wasps remind us that winter is coming and will kill all those annoying insects for a few months’ reprieve. Trees begin to turn, the tops usually start first, just a few golden leaves then gradually more. The mornings…have you noticed? This morning was unusually cool, close to 50 degrees when I rose, too cool to run in my usual tank top; I wore sleeves. No one in western Montana can escape the smoke right now, which is also an indication of fall, at least over the last several years. And if you’re a teacher…well, you’re only too aware that summer is coming to an end. One of the first questions I get from teacher-friends is “are you ready?” It’s a silly question; I’m not ready and never will be, but this fall, for me, is different.

My dad’s birthday was September 1st; this is the first one since I’ve been alive that he won’t be. If you’ve lost a parent or someone very close to you, you understand the “firsts” that occur throughout the year that follows the loss. This is the first birthday; in June was the first Father’s Day. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, my sisters’ and my birthdays, Mother’s Day, their anniversary, all of those passed during this first year, too. This year will be the first Halloween, the day he died, one year ago. My sister, Terri, always loved Halloween more than almost any holiday. I wonder how she’ll experience this coming one.

It seems cliché; my relationship with my father was strained, and now I regret that. Of course, I do. That’s how it works, and I’m not special. Many people before me have experienced the same thing, which is why it’s cliché. We like to believe we’re an evolved species, but I wonder about that. Even when we know better, we continue to make the same mistakes. It’s a form of hubris, I think, a very common human foible. Each of us believes we are the exception somehow.

I enter the fall semester of 2017 with trepidation. Last fall was one of my worst, personally, and one my best, professionally. I hate to think that one precludes the other, but it seemed to work that way. Aside from the fact that my dad is gone, I enter fall semester as an unmarried woman, the first time in twenty-four years. Nearly all of my personal relationships have undergone significant change; some didn’t survive my divorce, some resulted from my divorce, and some are still in transition. In many ways, I’m a different woman than the one who returned to campus for convocation 2016. I hope I’m not hardened; I hope I’m still the Pollyanna optimist I’ve always been, but I’m not sure…

I struggled after Dad died, and the memorial ceremony was one of my worst experiences. My marriage was crumbling, my dad had died unexpectedly, and emotionally, I was a wreck. I survived it, but that was all. Since I don’t live close, I was not there when his cremains were installed in the cemetery, and though I’d been to Billings several times, I never stopped at the cemetery. I thought about it; I wanted to, but I didn’t, until Sunday.

Mark and I went to Billings for a party to celebrate my sister Julie’s new firepit. I told him before we left that I wanted to stop in Laurel and see my dad’s final resting place. On the way home, I got involved in a phone call and forgot my plans (I wonder…), but Mark didn’t. He turned off in Laurel and found his way to the cemetery where we located my dad. It was August 6th, so nine months plus after he’d died. I guess that’s how long it took me to be ready, and I’m not going to apologize for that. To whom would I apologize anyway? Like many other examples I could conjure, I’m frequently late in my ability to make sense of things; I’m a pretty smart person, but sometimes it takes me a while to process.

A few years ago, my dad started playing on the internet. Soon, he discovered memes and “fake news,” which annoyed the living hell out of me. Political opposites, I finally told him to stop sending me that shit, which to his credit, he did. Occasionally, he’d send me something he thought I’d enjoy, and one email message he sent me remains in my “inbox,” and I revisit it from time to time. It’s incredibly emotional for me because I love Andre’ Rieu, I love strings, I love this song, and I loved my dad. See if you can get through it without tears; I can’t. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1yfX6VnrSU

Fall semester 2017 is coming, like it or not. I guess I need to get ready.

Seven More Days

Almost always, at midterm of the semester, I develop a bad attitude: I start grousing about students, complaining that they’re not performing to caliber, noting the many who are not attending class, wondering what other kind of work I’m qualified to do (?) because I’m so tired of this teaching gig. Like the monthly cycle I used to dread, I can almost predict it to the day, but then before I realize it, we’re about two weeks away from the end, and miraculously, the rainbow appears.

Y’all have my permission to slap me silly the next time I start; I mean it.

Today, a good day, I remembered why I do this work. It isn’t for everyone; let me be clear, but for me, I cannot imagine how I could possibly love an occupation more, and it’s not just those damn students who make it so great.

I woke at 5:45 a.m., the usual time when my alarm sounds. It annoys me, usually, but I rise and start my day. By 6:30, earbuds in, gloves on, and well-worn sneakers laced up, I’m on my way up the hill with a little Lynyrd Skynyrd on Pandora. I hike up the asphalt trail, warming up and breathing hard. About 20 minutes into the hike, I turn around and pick up the pace. Downhill is not quite a sprint but neither a jog, somewhere in between as I try to keep the pace slow enough that I don’t jar anything too drastically or trip over my own feet. At about the 30-minute mark, I turn around and walk/jog the last few minutes back to my house, and when I arrive, I feel energized and ready to take on the world. After showering and dressing for work, I eat breakfast and visit with Leo the bird, filling his water and food dish, giving him a special piece of lettuce or some millet. Then, I leave for work.

The best thing about that whole scenario is that I don’t have to worry about the time. Sometimes I leave home at 8:05 a.m., other times 8:30. Sometimes I’m really slow and it might be 8:45, but rarely is it later than that. The flexibility that my job offers is incredibly valuable to me; it gives me great peace-of-mind to have the leisure in the morning to treat my body the way I should and attend to Leo. After all, he is 20 years old.

My colleagues: you’d have to experience it to completely understand, but I’ll try to put it in perspective. We’re something like a family. We bicker and barter and sometimes we really step up in support of each other but more often we’re commiserating or teasing each other. Most of the faculty share one huge office divided by cubicles. The lack of privacy, especially when working with students, can be problematic, but the camaraderie at other times reminds me of the television show The Waltons and their nightly ritual of saying good-night. Good night, John-boy. Add to that a group of highly educated stand-up wannabes, and we have some really hilarious pseudo-conversations sometimes, so funny that I’ll be laughing about it hours later. Yeah, and I’m being paid for that, sort of.

Make no mistake: I make up for the late arrivals and collegiality during evenings and weekends, and I haven’t had a true lunch break in a couple years, but those things are important in my life, to the quality of my life, and really help me wake up at 5:45 with a little less crankiness.

Nonetheless, it’s the students (you knew this was coming) who remind me why I love this job. It’s not all students and it’s not even some students all the time, but it’s most of the students, and sometimes it doesn’t even have much to do with school work. You’ve heard, I’m sure, that we’re headed to hell in a handbasket? Ask any teacher who’s been doing this work for any number of years, and you’ll find out that’s not true. Teachers who teach, those who love their work and their students, will be the first to tell you that students haven’t really changed over the years. Society changes, and culture changes, and sometimes it does seem that values weaken some, but I can say with complete certainty that we are in good, capable hands. Here’s why:

Meet “M”. I met him last semester in my class, a young man who struggles with mental illness, who lives with a woman who also struggles with mental illness. They support each other and both contribute to the conversation about mental illness, going so far as to be participants on panels and informational venues. “M” is in my class, again, this semester and told me about his early mornings, 4:00 or 4:30, when he rides his bicycle to work several miles, riding home later to prepare for school. This is all in addition to school. But what struck me most about “M” was last semester when he and his partner were both in my class. I knew the challenges they were facing, and one day, I felt compelled to hug his girlfriend; I felt she needed some support. It wasn’t her response that surprised me, but his: he came to me later and thanked me for the gesture. It was important to her, he said, and the love in his voice, the tenderness and concern for her, touched me deeply. More concerned with her suffering than his own, his empathy for her responded to my hug. See what I mean? No hell in his future, none other than mental illness and the costs of healthcare.

Then there’s “B.” I met him last semester, too, and I was impressed immediately. A nontraditional student and irrepressible perfectionist, he soon stood out as a class leader, and I sought his advice and help. This semester, he’s in two of my classes, so I see him every day; I remind him, frequently, of his good luck, and he responds that he had no other choice, or something equally dismissive, but our friendship has grown this semester and my respect for him is immense. A committed father and husband, his priorities in life are clear, but he’s involved in many groups and activities beyond school. His humor, his leadership among students, his stellar academic work, and his kind heart endear him to me more all the time. The only questionable association he has is his personal friendship with Donald Jr., and I’m going to cut him some slack there. He also doesn’t drink, and that might be his problem, for I have found that a couple glasses of wine will take the edges off.

There’s so many students like these; I could write about them, each one, and people would think I was making it up, but I’m not. These are our students: they are parents, children, spouses, employees, friends, veterans, young, old, male, female and confused. They struggle, and they’re trying their best to better their lives while working and managing dysfunctional vehicles and relationships. If you want to see and experience the best that Montana has to offer, I invite you to visit your local community college, where you will find instructors who are doing their best to help students, citizens, who are also doing their best.

But take my advice: don’t do it at midterm.

SPRING BREAK 2017

Since 2003 when I first started college at Montana State, I’ve never vacationed during Spring Break. Other people would talk about their vacations, sometimes even exotic locales, but not me: I had work to do. As a nontraditional college student, I was driven and focused on doing well at school, and just generally, vacations were few and far between. As a teacher, I always have plenty of work to catch up on, and I always used that time to grade papers or finish up unfinished business. Sometimes it was spent working on taxes. Finally, after fourteen years of higher ed, I planned and enjoyed a real Spring Break. This might be the beginning of a tradition.

My friends know that the last several months have been difficult; during that time, my cousin Jamie has been one of the stalwart supports in my circle. Always just a text message or email away, she frequently checks in and checks on. More like a sister, she and I share a connection that goes deep. We understand each other at a very intimate level, and we share pretty much everything. Despite that we’re separated by more than ten years, we have a lot in common. I’ve wanted to visit her in the Bay Area ever since she moved there, and finally, we made it happen. I gave myself a gift last Christmas: a trip to San Jose to visit Jamie over Spring Break. Finally, I was one of those people who actually spend Spring Break having fun rather than working the entire time. Maybe I’ve turned over a new leaf!

The first day of my “vacation” was spent traveling, and it started out badly. Due to stormy weather in Salt Lake City, my flight was postponed so that instead of arriving in SJ around 4:00, I didn’t get in until after 9 p.m. Dinner plans with Jamie and friends were ruined (for me, at least), but I still arrived on the same day. On Sunday, Jamie had everything planned: brunch at Absinthe in Hayes Valley; a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge; a stop at Coit Tower; shopping at Union Square; a drink at a beautiful hotel in the area; dinner at Dosa, a fabulous Indian foods restaurant. It was perfect.

Absinthe

Monday Funday was reserved for wine country! We started our day leisurely, then drove first to Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma County. A light breeze cooled the day, but the sun shined, and I felt crazily indulgent, tasting wine midday on a Monday. We shared the patio with only a few other lucky people. From there, we headed north to Robert Keenan Winery in the Napa Valley. There, we were nearly alone with the winery staff who were very friendly and accommodating, even inviting Jet to join us inside. I splurged and bought two bottles of wine and spent much more than I usually do (think 14 Hands Hot to Trot at Costco), one for me and one for Jamie. I brought mine home in my suitcase, worried that all my clothes would be pink when I got here, but all’s well, and I’m saving the bottle for a special occasion. We wrapped up with dinner at Rutherford Grill, where I ate the best veggie burger I’ve ever had and drank more wine.

gloria

Jamie, me, and Jet

Jamie and me Napa

Tuesday, we hiked; it was beautiful and pastoral, and Jet joined us. Happy dog, happy dog, happy, happy, happy dog. I miss my dogs a lot, and spending time with Jet was therapeutic (she also shared the bed with us). She is a beautiful animal with a loving heart. The first hike of the new year, it was challenging and exhilarating at once. My smile in the photos shows clearly how I was feeling. After returning home to shower, we ventured to Half Moon Bay where we shopped in some sweet little stores and bought matching bracelets. I had bought us both matching bracelets when we hiked in Glacier last fall, and we were wearing them while I was in California; it might, also, be a new tradition. We stopped for drinks in a watering hole/hotel and it seemed like we generated a certain amount of attention though I’m not sure why. Maybe we were having too much fun.

Me hiking

Hiking

Jamie and me Half Moon Bay

Finally, we ate dinner at Moss Beach Distillery; enjoying an ocean view table, we watched the sun set on the water as we ate and contemplated our last day together. The meal was perfect, as all our meals were, and I felt really happy and content and about five pounds heavier. We also laughed, a lot. More than once during my visit, we found ourselves wiping away tears as we laughed about some silly thing. It was a bitter-sweet ending to an exciting and emotional four days together.

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Yesterday, we rose early, and Jamie delivered me to SJC for my journey home. It was mostly uneventful except for some crazy turbulence between Seattle and Helena; I wondered for a moment who would teach my classes if I didn’t make it home. Sorry, students: we didn’t crash. I was in bed before 8:30 last night and slept until nearly 7 a.m. today. I guess I needed the rest after such a fantastic experience.

Today, life resumed its normal rhythm: I graded papers, went for a lovely 4-mile jog, and did some laundry. I also got word that my tenure has been approved by my college; now I just await the final decision by the Commissioner and the Regents. That’s a nice gift to return home to and a reminder that my work is what enables me to enjoy the finer things, like visiting my cousin in San Jose. I guess I’ll keep teaching for a while; I can’t wait to open that special bottle of wine. Cheers, friends.

SIX MONTHS

Last year, midway through the fall semester (my life is delineated by a school calendar), I lost my dad and my marriage on the same day: October 31, 2016. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect, I see that as the defining moment when I went from Karen Henderson, Nelson’s daughter and Chuck’s wife, to Karen Henderson, temporarily undefined persona.

Losing my dad was a shock, losing my marriage, not so much. My dad had more surgeries over the past ten years than most people have colds; I couldn’t even guess how many times he was hospitalized, but I’m almost certain that the people in the ER at St. Vincent’s Hospital knew him by sight and possibly by his first name. The surgeries started before I even left home. He had major back surgery when I was a teenager, and over the intervening years, a brain surgery to remove a tumor, heart surgeries to install stents and a pacemaker, shoulder and hip replacements, and amputations to remove both legs below the knees. More than once, we gathered at the hospital ready to get the bad news: his heart wasn’t strong enough for the surgery. But that never came. There were some very close calls, some last rites delivered by priests, some miraculous recoveries, but the Grim Reaper was cheated many times, sometimes by a hair’s breadth. So, when on Monday, October 31, 2016, my sister Terri called and said bluntly, “Karen, Dad died,” I wasn’t prepared. Sitting at my computer staring at the screen, my thoughts were that it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. He had been well, all things considered. He’d been at my nephew’s, Ryan’s, wedding in August, and he had been pretty well since then. There’d been no hospitalizations, no close calls, no warnings, none that I knew of, anyway. How could it happen that quickly, out-of-the-blue?

I went into reaction mode and contacted the people who would need to know, my boss mainly. I would have to miss some work, probably. Chuck was already in bed, and I didn’t bother telling him until later, an omission pointed out to me later by Nancy, my counselor. When your dad dies, it’s probably important enough to wake your husband. Yeah, probably, but I waited. I guess I figured the reaper might as well take whatever else in my life that was nearing that precipice.

The memorial service was torturous for me; there’s no other way for me to describe it. I wondered then, and wonder now, if other people feel that way when they lose someone important. I did not want to be there; I wanted to be any other place than in the center of attention, the recipient of the kind comments and warm hugs of family and friends. Constantly afraid of losing emotional control, I steeled my will and my emotions and refused to feel anything. Only one moment caused a crack in my façade, and that was when my girlhood friend, Connie, came up to me at the reception. I hadn’t seen her in the church, didn’t expect her to be there at all. Her words I can’t recall, but the sentiment and her hug touched the very base of my soul, and I almost lost my composure.

I’ve thought about all of that many times since. Funerals, memorials are supposed to offer closure, some kind of resolution, but all I wanted was to get away. I wonder if it is like that for others. One of my favorite “This I Believe” essays is titled, “Always Go to the Funeral,” and its message is quite different, that showing up for the funeral is a sign of support and respect. While I appreciate the outpouring of support and the people who came to show their respects for my dad, the whole thing was painful for me and not something I would willingly endure again.

Only a month and a few days later, I signed the documents that would end my twenty-four-year marriage. Two men, incredibly important in my life, left in the span of less than two months, neither of them entirely willingly. How does a person process that kind of loss in a healthy way?

Six months: that’s what Nancy tells me. She says it takes about six months before a person recovers to a point of being able to make relatively good decisions. “No major life decisions for at least six months,” she says, “and a year would be better.”

From what date, I wonder. October 31st? My dad would say, if he could, that I was always terrible at following advice, bull-headed, obstinate, difficult. God knows, he gave me plenty, and most of it I ignored. Chuck would agree; definitely more temperate than I, he could sometimes see the train wreck before it happened, but he was powerless to prevent it.

People tell you how it will be, and they’re right: at first, you’re numb, and when it begins to wear off, like Novocain from the dentist, you feel tingling, reminding you that you’re alive. Then, unexpectedly, there will be that “thing” that strikes a chord in your heart, sometimes at the most inopportune times. Suddenly, you’re in the middle of Walmart, crying at the memory of something, you’re not sure what, or it suddenly hits you that you won’t ever again see your dad. Never. Not ever. You look around, and everyone is going about their lives as if there hasn’t been a major shift in the tectonic plates of the earth, your earth. You wonder how they can’t know.

I’m always different, always more difficult. It’s unusual to lose one’s father and one’s husband at the same time, and honestly, some people would suggest that I deserve what I get. I can’t argue that; the only thing that keeps me relatively sane lately is this: six months. It’s been four, almost, if I count from October 31st, 2016.

Solidarity

I marched today; I marched in solidarity with people (not just “women”) to support human rights. For some people, today was definitely a response to our new president, but for me, it was more a positive response to support human rights for all. It would be very easy for me to go negative; believe me, but I don’t see anything positive coming out of that, and right now, I really need more positive than negative, so I choose to view it in a positive way.

It was awesome, really. They expected maybe 5,000 people, but as I drove into Helena from Montana City, I could tell there would be many more. The streets were clogged with traffic. I had planned to meet my friends at the “mall-that-isn’t” but there was nowhere to park. We ended up meeting at the college and walking the several blocks to the capitol. That’s okay; I didn’t get my usual 30 on the treadmill today anyway. People were everywhere. There were just lines and lines of groups of people, many holding signs of the most original thought. I didn’t get many photos because I was too enthralled with just watching and being dumbstruck by the theatre. It was inspiring.

I saw on the Helena Independent Record website that they estimate 10,000 people were there. It felt like it. Inside the capitol building, people were everywhere, and I saw only one security person. It felt a little like the “people” had taken over.

We didn’t stay until the end. We all got chilled, and we knew the exodus would mean a traffic snarl, so we left early, but as I reflected on the event, I thought about my own life and how over the last several months, it’s been women who have sustained me. Many people don’t know the pain and tragedy of the past months for me, but there are a group of women who do know, and they are the heroes of my world. My cousin Jamie is at the forefront. From day one, she has been by my side, checking in, asking about my sleep and my eating, worried about my destructive behaviors and a solid constant in my changing world. Though much younger than I, she has been the voice of reason more than once.

Then there is June. June and I have been through hell and back (another story), and what’s amazing about her is her resilience and her take-no-shit attitude. She is a straight-shooter who calls ‘em like she sees ‘em, and too bad if you don’t like it. Sometimes I didn’t like it, but I had to hear it, and June was one to tell me.

Then there’s Deb M. and Karen RC and a collection of my colleagues and Facebook friends, who check in from time to time, despite their own busy lives, just to make sure I’m not alone or lonely. My friend Kerri recently spent part of the afternoon chatting with me on the phone, checking in, making sure I’m okay. My cousin Susan has been another support, someone I know I could call on any time, any day, despite the physical distance between us. She’s more like a sister than a cousin. And there’s my good friend, Laura, a busy mom/working woman/wife/activist who made time for me several times to vent on the phone or to go for a hike. What an unbelievable group of strong, compassionate women have surrounded me.

Tonight, I’m so humbled by it all. It’s true that sometimes women can be “mean girls.” I’ve seen that, too, but today I witnessed what I consider one of the most altruistic gatherings of people in support of others that I’ve ever seen (in such mass), and in my own life, I’ve felt it lately too.

I’m sure I’ve left out someone important, someone who has been a critical support, and I acknowledge that there have been some dudes who have been pretty darn considerate, but if I survive this crazy disruption of my life, and the next four years, it will be due to the love of my “sisters” and to female solidarity.