The (Almost) End

Tomorrow, we will be two weeks away from the last day of classes for spring semester 2017. Students are anxious during this time of year; they’re anxious about the final assignments that are usually heavy point assignments; they are anxious about their grades; they are anxious to be done. Teachers, too. It’s the time of year when I’m not surprised if a student breaks down in tears in my office. Sometimes, I join them. The stress can be unbearable, and it’s not always bad stress. All the different stressing agents—teachers, assignments, children, jobs, applications to special programs, money, future semesters, graduation—all contribute to students’ stress levels, and we’re all a bit anxious and on edge. It hasn’t been that long for me; I remember what it’s like, and I spent my fair share of time in my professors’ offices in tears, so I’m sympathetic.

For me, though, this is one of my most favorite times. Tonight, Robyn and I held the Phi Theta Kappa induction of new members. What a rush! One of our new members was a student in my class during my first or second year at Helena College. After the ceremony, he and his mother asked if they could take a photo with me. What? As if that wasn’t enough, they went on to tell me that though I was one of his first teachers, I was one of the most influential. Let me just say, hearing that caused me to step back a moment. It’s been four or five years since that young scholar was in my class, and to be remembered in such a way reminds me of the severe responsibility of my position. What might have happened if he would have had a negative experience in my class?

Beyond that, there were two students inducted who are current students of mine, and several others whom I’ve had in class previously. I own no credit for those students’ achievements, but it certainly feels fabulous to recognize and congratulate them publicly for their academic success. I remember my own honor society inductions; there’s little recognition of the commitment and many hours it requires to earn a 3.5 or higher GPA. Ceremonies and notices on the Dean’s list are about it, so I like to make the most of it. I’m so proud of our students.

For me, too, this is a stressful time. I worry about those students on the bubble…will they pull it together at the end, or will I reluctantly have to assign a failing grade? I worry about my high-achieving students: will they successfully manage the stress or will they bail before it’s all done? I worry about getting things graded in a timely manner, and with this semester’s “Rocket Project,” I’ve not been very good about that. And frankly, I worry about crying in front of my students. It doesn’t take much; ask anyone who knows me. Monday night was a night to cry. Tonight was a night of celebration. We still have two weeks left, and we could see any and all combinations between now and then, from me.

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Did I mention my clubs? I currently advise two clubs: Helena Helm student newspaper and TRiO Students 2 Scholars. I could.not.possibly.be.more.proud of these students. Believe me when I say that I have been the straggler in these organizations, but despite that, the students have achieved really great things. The newspaper has published two, soon to be three, editions, the first ever for Helena College. We have never had a student-voiced medium, but we do now, and thanks to Joy, Kiera, Dalton, Angela, and others, we will in the future, too. And then there’s TRiO S2S. That group of students deserves a post all their own, and I’m sure at some point, I’ll devote one to them. They have achieved more in one academic year than I could have ever hoped, most especially close to my heart is the memorial tree project for students who have died too soon. This, for me, is personal and another reason I just might cry. Dalton and Kat, especially, deserve great credit for the success of this club, and I am so excited that we have current students willing to step up and take on leadership roles for the next year. They asked me today, at a meeting, if I would stay on as advisor, and though they might have been trying to get rid of me, it ain’t happening. They are stuck with me.

Fourteen years ago, I began my college education, hoping to become an English teacher. I had great aspirations of what a great teacher I could be, and I thought I had a lot to offer students in my care. I had no freakin’ idea, just sayin’. What I did not know was how much the many students in my care had to teach me, how much I would come to love them and how much of my identity and personal success would be tied to theirs; what I did not know was how lucky I would be to find my “home” at Helena College and Helena city. I’m not sure my heart could have stood the fullness, had I known then, where I would be today. I’m pretty damn sure, I would have cried.

Day 21

I made my television debut today; I think I won’t quit my day job.

Andy Hunthausen, one of Lewis and Clark County’s Commissioners, invited me to join him on HCTV for a conversation about the Rocket Project, the restoration of a piece of playground equipment at the county fairgrounds and my students’ oral history project. Why not, I thought.

It’s a very odd thing, watching oneself on video. It’s nothing like looking at still photos. I always hate photographs of myself because they never look the way I see myself, and watching myself on video was even stranger: my mannerisms seemed unfamiliar though I live with myself all the time, and my voice…my voice is child-like and not at all how I hear it when I speak. My eyes, though…so many times people (men, mostly) have commented about my eyes, especially about the way I sometimes look at them. I’ve had people say, “the way you looked at me, I’ll never forget that look,” and it’s usually not because it was a good look, and yet, most of the time, I’ve not been conscious at all of giving someone a specifically meaningful glance. When I watched the video today, I was struck by the expressiveness of my eyes, and I had a glimpse, I think, of what some people have noted. There were a couple moments of intensity where I felt if my mood had been dark, I would not have wanted to be on the other side of “that look.” Very strange…I didn’t believe them before.

The entire “performance” lasted about 15 minutes, and my part was significantly less than that. Nonetheless, I was honored to be invited to join Andy and Jim Cottrill and Keith Hatch to talk about the Rocket Project and share some of the amazing things we’ve been doing at Helena College. It aired today at 4:00 on cable channel 189, and it will air again tomorrow, Friday, April 21, at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday at 4:00 p.m. in case you’d like to tune in. As I said initially, I won’t be quitting my day job. Here’s a link to a live stream:

http://helenacivictv.org/whats-on-our-channel/live-stream/

So…between my 55th birthday on Monday—a great day, I have to say—and my television debut, and a great week working with great students, and a lot of things going on and some coming to culmination, this has been an interesting week. On the way home from work tonight, I had a revelation: I am the boss of my life, totally and completely. I don’t have to consult one single person about the decisions I make or the reasons I make them. I can choose to do—or not do—any damn thing I please within the limits of the law and my conscience. And that revelation brought me to my next decision: 30 days is an arbitrary number that means nothing outside of a typical number of days in a month. In fact, 20 days is just as arbitrary and just as good in most cases, unless one is awaiting delivery of a baby or anticipating something else of such significance, and since I successfully managed to remain alcohol-free for 21 days—if I count today—why would it matter if I waited another nine days to enjoy a lovely glass of wine? And to whom did I have to answer, in any case, about whether or not I went 20 days or 30 days or four hours without an alcoholic drink? OH! I had only to answer to ME!

When I arrived home, I chose a nice bottle of wine from the wine rack—not the $54 cab, not yet—but a nice bottle, and I opened it, and I am enjoying a glass as I compose this post. I’m not gonna lie: I love red wine; I love being the boss of my life; I even love my job, today, and that’s a good thing because my television career was short-lived.

Here’s to a good day, friends. Cheers!

Day 17

Happy Easter! It’s day 17 of alcohol abstinence; it was pretty challenging last night when my friends Karen and Mary and I went to dinner after the roller derby bout between Helena’s Hel’z Belles and the Great Falls team. They had drinks at the bout, and it’s such a raucous atmosphere, I would have enjoyed a drink, but I had a diet coke instead, all the while remembering a paper one of my students wrote last fall about how bad diet soda is for one’s health. She ruined diet soda for me; since then, I buy flavored seltzer water.

After the bout, we went to MacKenzie River Pizza for dinner, and I really would have liked a glass of wine with my salad, but I had club soda instead. More than anything, now, it’s getting tedious to talk myself out of it, but I’m pretty determined.

To celebrate my 17 days of success, I went hiking with Adam today. He and I haven’t spent much time together over the past year. He was traveling over the holidays, when we usually have time to reconnect, and now he’s getting ready to go back to work for the Forest Service this month, so we had planned to hike today.

I met him at the junction of Lincoln Road and Highway 200, and then we went a couple miles toward Lincoln and turned north onto a road that was supposed to take us to the trail head of the Lewis and Clark Pass Trail. We got about 4.5 miles from the trail head and couldn’t go any further due to snow in the road, so we decided to walk, not knowing exactly how far away we were. When we got to the trail head, the trail itself was only 1.5 miles more to the top, so after eating our lunches, we decided to go on despite the snow. In some places, it was probably about two feet deep, but it was still frozen enough that we didn’t break through.

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We saw lots of scat on the way, wolf scat (which I’ve never seen before) and elk scat, and Adam found a grizzly paw print in the mud. He said it looked like a small bear. We didn’t see any live animals on the entire trek, nor did we see another human the entire time. Adam works for the Forest Service, in the Lincoln district, and he said the trails in that area are lightly used. I guess there’s no big attractions out that way to draw people in. I definitely plan to go hike that trail again this summer, and maybe I’ll even go on from the top. There are a few different trails that lead off from the top of that one.

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I left the house a little after 9 a.m. this morning and returned home about 5 p.m. After a hot bath and a light supper, I’m just about ready for bed. What a great day it was, and the best part is that summer isn’t even here yet. This is just the beginning of another great summer of adventure!

Day 10

You’ve been wondering; haven’t you? Come on, admit it: you’ve been wondering how I was doing with my April abstention. Fair enough, it was a lofty goal, but as my bff June said to me today, when I make a decision, I’m like a bulldog with a bone. It’s gonna happen or I’ll die trying.

That might be what happens, actually, because I have been very under the weather this week, and it seems to be getting worse. Now, I caution my students about drawing conclusions about causation where there’s only correlation, but this seems to me too coincidental: I quit drinking on March 30, and I started feeling a little ill soon after. A sore throat, head congestion, fatigue, those were the initial symptoms, close enough to my usual spring allergies that I ignored it at first. As the week went on, the symptoms got worse: terrible head congestion, plugged ears, headache, fatigue, sore throat, and now, today, a cough! The congestion has begun to move from my head to my lungs, and I get to coughing so hard sometimes that I nearly pass out. I quit drinking—I get sick: coincidence? I think not.

Nonetheless, I’m stubborn that way, and if I can make it ten days (albeit with pneumonia), then I can make it another twenty. And besides, anticipation precedes satisfaction, right? Think how great that first glass of wine will taste on April 30th, and even better, my tolerance will be down, so I’ll only need two glasses before I’m giddy as a teenage girl.

Due to my illness, I’ve not been able to hike. I did walk about four miles today, between fits of coughing that double me over like a punch to the gut, walking to the store in Montana City for a newspaper. A man came up to me and said, “I like your socks!” I was wearing one of the mismatched pairs I got as a gift from Pam, a student from the fall of 2015. One was a bright, neon pink with green stripes, the other neon yellow with pink stripes, and I love those socks (one of several she gave me) because they remind me of her, and because they’re silly. The man went on to say, “It reminds me of how I dress!” I noted his Carhartt ensemble and his long, messy hair and wondered what that says about me.

April continues to move ever closer to summer, and I’m not gonna lie: that makes me very happy. My birthday is just days away now, the big 5-5, which brings me around to that other “A” word from last week. I didn’t have any mystical experiences this past week, which is a little disappointing, but I still had some encounters with beings I would consider angels. A male colleague, a friend who shall remain nameless, asked how old I am, and I told him 55 in 10 days. He said, “You look good! I would have thought you were in your forties!” We will be friends forever, now. And then there is Kiera, a student from last semester, creative writing class, who’s also a member of the newspaper club that I advise. She emailed me Thursday morning and said she had a gift for me and when could we meet? She came to my office that afternoon, with her father in tow, to deliver a beautiful rock-like mineral called a geode that has dark purple crystals on the inside. She got it for me in Arizona while on her spring break, and the fact that she thought of me at all during spring break makes me feel like I won the lottery.

And so it goes, friends. That is a recap of week one, addiction detox. Do me a favor, will you? Leave a comment, so I’ll know who’s been visiting my blog. My stats show visitors from all around the world, and I just can’t imagine who in Australia or Romania or Canada would have any interest in reading the blog of a middle-aged teacher in Montana who quit drinking wine in April. But thanks for reading.

April, Abstention, Ascension, & Angels

April is special to me; besides the fact that I hate winter in Montana, April is my birth month. In a few days, I’ll turn 55 years old, halfway between 50 and 60. It seems like a good time to reassess my life, especially considering that it seems only weeks ago I turned 50. Since this is the beginning of April, and we’re still in the Lenten season (not that I practice a faith, but…), I decided to practice a little abstention of addictions. This is day three without any wine or alcohol of any kind (not that I’m counting). It’s okay, actually, because my addiction is psychological rather than physical, but it’s true that I drink wine nearly every day, and sometimes more than the recommended “one glass.” I really love wine. However, it has been suggested to me, by some who shall remain nameless, that I should cut back on the vino, and so for the rest of April I will not drink wine or alcohol of any type. It’s an exercise in self-control. My second addiction is too personal; it’s not illegal or harmful (though possibly dangerous), but it’s not something I’m comfortable putting out on the World Wide Web. It will require at least the same self-control and conscious effort. Buddhists believe that attachment to people and things is what causes us pain in life, so I’m consciously trying to detach to improve my life and my spirit. In any case, I intend to indulge to my heart’s content on April 30th. Just sayin’.

I hiked Mt. Ascension today, perfect for a hike: cool but sunny, not too many people on the trails, and I managed to get to the summit and back to my car without any detours. I love hiking, and it’s a good activity to keep me focused and physically fit. Maybe I’ll even lose a few pounds since I won’t be imbibing as usual. Lots of people hike Mt. Helena, but I prefer Mt. Ascension for several reasons, partly because of memories of hiking it with special people, but also because of the challenge it offers in following trails and because it’s less popular. It’s a good hike for contemplation and meditation, a couple hours at least from start to finish. I usually sit at the top and think, which I did today. As this was my first hike of the season in Montana—I hiked in California last week—I hoped I might see some early wildflowers, but I wasn’t too hopeful; it’s early and has been so cool, I didn’t expect to see any, but on the way down, I saw two beautiful little groups of purple flowers, nearly fully blooming. They were short, close to the ground, but with good-sized petals, almost like wild tulips, really lovely. I was surprised because I saw no other flowers on the entire hike. It seemed odd and out of place that these two little clumps of flowers should sit so isolated and close to the trail. I hoped it was a sign.

While I sat at the summit, I tried to meditate, but I’m not very successful at quieting my mind. Last week in California, Jamie and I talked about “setting intentions,” the idea that if a person sets an intention and asks the universe, or God, or whatever energy one believes in to bring about the intention, it will come to pass. Nancy, my counselor, tells me there is data that show if a person attends to her spirituality, emotional healing will happen faster and better. I didn’t ask her to show me the studies (doubting Thomas that I am), but she’s been pretty spot-on in everything else, so I believe what she says. The problem is that I have a pretty negative attitude toward religion in general, all religion. I consider myself agnostic; however, I know there are several people who pray for me on a regular basis—now including a shuttle driver in Portland whom I met on a ride to the airport! Random! And despite being a nonbeliever, I also feel like a slacker when so many people are spending their valuable time and prayers on me. I should at least be helping! This is where the angels come in; there seem to be signs, there’s something tugging at me, wanting me to listen to the silence. The flowers. I set the intention, I hoped I’d see them, and they were there. I almost took a photo, but I didn’t because I hoped they weren’t real, that they were meant for me alone.

I’m not at all a superstitious person, but I’m open to the possibility that maybe I’m wrong. Gasp!! Steady yourselves. Maybe there is something beyond this consciousness, this life.

April, Abstention, Ascension & Angels: Day 3.

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.

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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.

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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.

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