Last day, First day

Last day in the office. Even though I stroll in a few minutes later than usual, no one is there to notice. It’s completely quiet. My boss is out of town, and others will slowly trickle in as the morning wears on. It rained today for the first time in ages — strange for Oregon this time of year — so my commute didn’t include the clear view of Mt. Hood I’d gotten used to over the past few weeks. Every day for the past 13 months, whether the sun was out or not, I would take a less conventional route to the office in order to express gratitude for the view. Today, clouds and drizzle dominate, so I didn’t see much, but it was still beautiful. I suppose summer doesn’t really start in Oregon until July 5th anyway.

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My daily view when it was clear out.

 

At my desk for the last time; I wake my computer up. There’s one tea bag left on my office shelf, my stash coincidentally budgeted exactly right. While here, tea has been a part of my daily ritual. Today it is sipped out of a paper cup because I brought my mug home earlier this week. Over time I’ve saved some of the quotes attached to the bags; those are already home as well, along with a few pictures and a ball-shaped tie-dye monkey given to me by a friend who also writes. I tore open my teabag and read, “Sing with all your heart.” Perfect – eerily too perfect – for a week from that day I will be launching a road trip where I karaoke in the 48 contiguous states.

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The perfect omen: The teabag reads “Sing with all your heart.”

I add it to my collection which consists of other sayings that felt right on the mornings they were given to me:

“Joy is the essence of success”

“A relaxed mind is a creative mind”

“If ‘Plan A’ didn’t work, the alphabet has 25 more letters”

I felt that each of those teabags was needling me to leave my job. Eventually I listened.

Boredom and chaos punctuate this last day, which made it both typical and atypical. I turn in my computer and recording equipment, leaving the box of tissues behind, along with the pen I’m using to write this on scrap paper. The pen is nothing special – a ballpoint from a major hotel chain – but it’s the pen I’ve used since I got here. Somehow I managed to keep the same pen this entire time.

I close my office door one final time to attend a happy hour held partially in my honor of my departure. Another colleague is also leaving. I barely knew her. She’s off on a fellowship and I’m off to chase dreams. I wish us both success.

Six month review

It’s been a little over six months since I’ve returned to American soil, yet it seems like forever ago. I find myself feeling as though I never left the US – as though all I learned from being away has simply vanished into a different reality. Was it only a year ago that I went out into the desert and rode a camel? Went snorkeling in an amazing sea? Seemed to have all the time in the world to contemplate both everything and nothing? That person who enjoyed those things doesn’t seem to exist anymore, yet here I am in (somewhat) the same body that I occupied there and then.

When I first got back, I wrote about what I had taken away from my travels in terms of shifting priorities and focus. Since I’m due for a six-month review in my job, I figured I would do one on these aspects of my life (original goal in italics):

  • More minimal living – I want less space and fewer possessions, especially when it comes to my wardrobe.
    I’ll give myself a passing grade here, but barely. I have enjoyed buying more than a few items since I’ve returned, but part of that is due to, ahem, a slightly “fluffier” body thanks to a bit of overindulgence of Mexican food and beer upon my return. I really missed a good ale and some tacos. I also find that I enjoy dresses and skirts more than slacks now, so I am letting my wardrobe shift in that direction. I’m late to the game, but am discovering the wonders of tights and leggings (this means they will be out of fashion in 3…2…1….).
  • Appreciation of food for its variety and simplicity.
    Yup. Doing this and happy about it. Cooking more vegetables at home and spending more time with friends in the kitchen. When I first got back there was too much dining out (see above), but I am enjoying a wide variety of foods and am still enjoying the not-too-fancy. And soon it will be roasted vegetable season! Hooray!
  • Friendship and the need to be present with those I love.
    I’ve seen most of my friends since I’ve been back with a few notable exceptions. I sense a couple of Happy Hours in my future, and I am hoping to revive a version of the Toddy Tour now that the weather is colder; this is where a group of women get together once a week at a different bar to sample the Hot Toddies across Portland. Yum! My brother and sister-in-law were just in town to help celebrate my birthday (of course there was karaoke). Many weekends are spent on my block, hanging out with neighbors who are also my dear friends. Going to their plays, cooking food, lazing about while enjoying Sunday morning bubbly. I’m also trying to see one of my closest friends as much as possible; she’s sick and every moment of being with her is precious. Texts about the mundane are enjoyable, wonderful moments. It would be nice if I thought of all my interactions that way.

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    Me and my amazing sister-in-law sipping tropical drinks at a karaoke bar. Magic!

  • The awareness that there is little I can control. Letting go is something I will continue to struggle with and I look forward to the challenge.
    Not sure how much I’ve been challenged here (knock on wood), but I think I’m getting better. My basement flooded this weekend and I didn’t have a complete meltdown. I consider that a victory!
  • Taking day trips/weekend getaways. Even one night somewhere else does so much to recharge my mind and soul.
    My knee-jerk reaction to this was that I haven’t been getting away much. Not sure what the ideal bar would be for me, but when I review what I’ve done since I’ve been back, I think I’ve been doing OK actually. I spent some very fun weekends with my father at the stock car races this summer, which then had me staying at my parents’ house overnight (they live about an hour away). While not exactly the stereotypical “getaway weekend,” going down there does recharge me. Also, I’ve been up to Seattle a couple of times to visit a friend and attend intellectual events (a talk, conference) – while Portland has tons of talks, for some reason I haven’t really gone to many. I don’t think about them here; I bet it’s a neat way to explore the city in a different light. I’ve gone to Sacramento to visit Dave and ride around in his Singer – ah, sun. Hmmm, why does it feel like I’m in Portland all the time?

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    The most enjoyable deathtrap ever.

  • Meditation practice. Haven’t revisited this yet, but planning on it! Really. Someone hold me accountable! Or perhaps it will naturally happen when I am ready.
    Fail in this department. Who’s the ass-kicker who will help me with this? I find it funny that I want someone to kick my butt about meditating more. Seems wonderfully inappropriate and paradoxical.
  • Tea breaks. Wherever I went, people actually stopped for tea. “To go” was rare. I want to take the time to sit and enjoy.
    So-so here. I sip tea at my desk constantly, and enjoy using the mug that I co-opted from the college (Lipton, the sign of good taste). When I work from home, I have morning tea while I answer emails. There I use a mug with Snoopy on it that says “Canada.” I bought it at Incheon airport in South Korea. But I am not actually taking breaks while I have tea. Still, the tea itself makes my work more relaxing. While I think it’s doing what I need it to do, I still could benefit from the occasional break from my desk.

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    Sipping tea from my liberated Omani mug.

  • Writing. Though no longer an expat, I hope to continue to write about things I did while overseas, and things I experience here as a result. If there’s anything you are interested in learning about, I welcome questions and inspiration.
    Thanks to NaBloPoMo (National Blog Post Month), I am planning on stepping up my game. Writing makes me feel better. Sharing it even more so. As I said six months ago, please send me your questions/ideas for writing! I have a full month to go of daily writing. It will be interesting to see what I end up posting.

Huh. Not too shabby if I do say so myself. I’ve maintained a lot more of these shifts than I feel on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps this is something I can meditate on in the future.

 

 

Always here, always now

To be able to be unhurried when hurried;
To be able not to slack off when relaxed;
To be able not to be frightened
And at a loss for what to do,
When frightened and at a loss;
This is the learning that returns us
To our natural state and transforms our lives.
[Liu Wemin, 16th Century]

Found while reading  dhamma footsteps 

I see these words as a great guide as I move forward in my new job, in my resettlement into Portland. I am wary that I will, indeed, slip back into the hurried state that I was accustomed to, that I witness every day in others. Taking time to stretch, walk, write, connect – these are important to me. The balance of relaxation with obligation is an ideal I will continue to strive towards. I felt this most when I lived in Toronto and Cheonan; working hard, yet still able to appreciate my surroundings and where life was taking me.

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Taking a walk break in Toronto

In these two places I found a welcoming balance of routine and novelty; of unhurried and mandates; of relaxation and production. These were places where I went outside every day and experienced the community mindfully. Sometimes I threw myself into the bustle of humanity, while other times I would find a more secluded place and just sit. Refreshed, I would return to my computer and produce, create, or do whatever was needed. Rarely did I feel like I had to do something; I looked forward to the tasks that lay in front of me.

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A park in Cheonan, South Korea. An escape from the large buildings in the background.

 

During these times, in these places, I was able to live in the experience of now. Appreciate that every moment is now without that meaning pressure, an impending deadline. Now simply is, and always will, be.

Killing Time: Campfire Destination

There’s not a lot to do out here, especially this time of year. Our grading is done, and the students have a week off for a study break before the second round of final assessments. Most universities in the US would see this as time off for teachers as well, but not here. Technically, we need to show our faces, so we do. At least there is internet at the college; at home we don’t have that luxury so it’s worth getting out of bed, donning modest clothing, and heading out to an empty campus. Many other teachers don’t feel the need to do the same, so we are practically alone. Perhaps it’s because they do have internet at home. Or maybe they are better masters of the art of doing nothing.

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Campus on Monday, 10AM.

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Not a student in sight.

 

Another way to pass the time is by driving around. Dave and I went on a little drive back to the place where we experienced the campfire complete with bagpipe entertainment. We wanted to see what it looked like out there while it was light, and we also wanted to mark the location on our GPS so we could find it again in the dark.

As we set off on our journey, we quickly realized the GPS would be of limited help. None of the roads we traversed were programmed in.

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Road to nowhere

 

Before you ask – yes, that is a burrito icon representing our vehicle.

A few kilometers down the road, we saw a grave.

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Who lies here?

 

Then…

Camels! Baby camels!

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Seeing there little guys pretty much made my day.

 

We passed a blasting site, some goats, sheep, and lots of desert terrain. Then, after a while, Dave recognized the turn-off and up a sandy hill we went. Times like this (and going to the ocean) are why we got our 4-Wheel drive Trooper, Horst. One crazy climb later and – ta da! – We reached the site. In the daylight, it wasn’t much, but it’s a good representation of Omani desert beauty.

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Desert. And more desert.

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Mountains. And more mountains.

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Looking around, the scenery grew on me. We decided this is a perfect spot to watch a sunset one day. It only took us 45 minutes to drive here, but we are far away from everything. And, as an added bonus, we managed to kill a couple of hours. Now what to do after work today?

Noticing the little things

My teaching is still a little too fear-driven. One fear is that I do not have enough material to make the class last the full 90 minutes. I prepare, of course, but each class remains a complete surprise in terms of what takes a long time for them and what comes with ease – what seems to engage the students, and what makes them bored before time is up. If I do fall short on activities (which is rare), it is only by about 5-10 minutes. Nothing major, but enough that I can’t let them go early (completely verboten here, unlike, say, what I am used to in the US when we treated students more like adults and if we were finished with a lesson, we had no reason to hold them without cause ), but not enough to start something new.  And when they decide their brains are full and they are done working, little can be done to get them motivated to complete their assigned tasks (my students are sweet, though. See what they did for my birthday?).

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Students give me presents, like this chocolate.

I also am concerned that I am not teaching the right things – that my students aren’t really learning anything. I see tiny glimmers of success in some, but nothing that makes me feel proud of my accomplishments, that I am doing anything more than taking up their time. For example, I have painstakingly gone over the fact that “a lot” is two words, yet “alot” remains common (dare I say, universal) in writings. Yet when I ask my students in class how many words “a lot” is, they answer correctly. The disconnect between what they know and what they write is a challenge that I cannot overcome. The exact same thing happens when it comes to writing the proper verb form for the first-person singular. This writing sample is one of the stronger ones and comes from a student who has been at the college for at least three years (all typos in the student examples are “sic”):

“Aaisha is a student in Rustaq College. She has been their four years. The typical day for her as a student is The begining of the week because she starts learning many subject that is suitable for her major…She get more experienced and learn many things.”

Notice how the student gets the verb form correct at first, then slips into the incorrect form? It shows understanding yet something else … Carelessness? A lack of understanding of the importance of verb forms and consistency? I know Arabic is primarily an oral language; perhaps this is the cause of this common error. I scratch my head, and go over the mistake several times on the board. If I write an incorrect form for all to see, they are quick to fix it. Yet when they write, the same mistake is made over and over again. Nothing changes.

I believe it is this fear/concern/self-doubt that makes me dread every Sunday morning. That causes me to debate whether to call in sick (I have yet to do this). Then, I get to class and for the most part everything is OK. Sure, sometimes that last 5-10 minutes is a pain in the butt, when students beg to be let out early, but I do enjoy being with them in the classroom. I like trying to push them, whether it is doing any good or not. I like that a few seem to care, but sometimes the lack of progress is heart-breaking.

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Results of a spelling test. What am I supposed to do?

One time, I asked a fellow, more experienced, teacher about how they grade assignments. With so many errors in their writings, I don’t have time to correct them all, but I want them to learn. This particular teacher said that she tries to focus on the purpose of the lesson: if the point was to convey an idea and they accomplished that, then don’t worry so much about proper grammatical form. If the lesson is focusing on grammar, then fix that. Her advice made sense, so I tried to implement it the next day.

During class, a student finished her assignment before the rest of the class –to summarize a paragraph. She did this well, covering all the main points and even had a topic sentence; she had accomplished the goal of the task! I told her that her work was very good and did not make a single mark on the paper. She smiled and asked, “Teacher, grammar correct?” I deflated a little bit. Although comprehensible, the grammar was far from correct. I simply replied that I understood what she was saying and we would work on her grammar another time. Did I leave her with the false impression that her writing was flawless? What was I supposed to do? I am still baffled as to how to deal with this issue. It’s huge, and it’s not going anywhere. Yet in my classes, grammar is rarely a focus of my assigned lesson plans ( as teachers we are given course specifications of what chapters in which books to cover for the semester), and when it is, it is on higher grammar points such as adverbial clauses and the proper punctuation to use when writing quotations. How can I focus on those points when I still have students writing: “In this summester she studey 5 subjects. she studey diffirent projects in diffirent time.” Or, “when I made the intrview with my frind and ask him some quasions a bot the college.”?

I need to find something to hold onto. A goal, a focus, a hope that will allow me to believe that I can do more than just show up in a room for 90 minutes and then, when the time is done, get ready for the next time, the next group of students. I’m not entirely sure where to look for this.

Postscript: I taught a class right after I wrote this piece. One student, who is always hesitant to write anything (she tends to put her ideas down in flow charts rather than use complete sentences, words seemingly slowing down her thought processes), wrote two sentences that were grammatically correct except for one missing “the” (articles are a challenge here as they are in many EFL students from around the globe)! I was happy and she was ecstatic when I told her she only missed one word, that she has improved a lot this semester. She pumped her fists in the air and exclaimed, “YES!” – Omani women are usually quite reserved, at least in class, so this outburst is very out of the ordinary. Her smile was all I needed today.