Finding the Angle of Repose in Marriage, Part I

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Have you been in a Target or a CVS lately? Have you been in any store lately?

If so, you’ve encountered the onslaught of red and pink bags of candy, the Valentines, and other related trinkets greeting you as soon as you walk through the door.

Seasonal holiday displays have risen to a new height in my lifetime. A person could literally redecorate her house every couple of months based on the upcoming holiday.

Last weekend, while shopping in one store, I noticed anything Valentine-related at the front of the store, and lurking at the back was anything Easter-related. When midnight strikes on Wednesday, the store fairies will work their magic, moving the Easter baskets et al to the front, beginning the cycle all over again.

This year will mark the thirtieth Valentine’s Day that Brad and I have celebrated together. Three of them dating; the rest as a married couple. There’s been the requisite flowers, the chocolate, the occasional bottle of perfume or small piece of jewelry over the years.

When the kids were young and I longed for a date night, Valentine’s Day was a much bigger deal for me. I have fond memories of some dinners out and trips to downtown Chicago just the two of us.

Earlier in the week, I told Brad all I wanted for Valentine’s Day was a cupcake or a fancy dessert from the local bakery that we could share. We leave for England in less than a week and I would much rather save our money for our trip than on a card or flowers. A very different request from what I would have said ten years ago.

The Valentine displays in the store reminded me of a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while: marriage—my own, and marriage in general. Not in an ominous sort of way, though.

I mentioned in an earlier post that the new year puts me in reflective mood. Seeing the cards and candy in the stores pushed this topic to the front of my mind again.

A number of years ago I read Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Angle of Repose. At over 600 pages, the book recounts the life of Oliver and Susan Ward as told by their grandson Lyman Ward.

Susan gives up her cultured life in the East to follow her husband West as he works as a mine engineer. Setting up a home in primitive conditions is hard and takes huge amounts of work. However, Susan enjoys her life in the West and the reader catches glimpses of a deepening love between the couple.

Inevitably, difficulties begin to arise in the marriage. The marital bond suffers and one spouse refuses to forgive the other for unfaithfulness.

In case you didn’t know, the term angle of repose is actually an engineering term, referring to “the angle of maximum slope at which a heap of any loose solid material (as earth) will stand without sliding.” This angle serves as a metaphor for the Ward’s marriage.

Some of you know I married young. I was 20; Brad was 23. We knew we loved God and each other, but we had much to learn about ourselves. I grew up in my twenties and so did he. Both of us would say we are different individuals than the ones who fell in love almost thirty years ago.

Throughout these years, we’ve had to learn how to flex and to bend to keep the other from sliding as the terrain changes. Together, we have created an angle that supports and holds the other person.

At times, this has meant releasing goals or plans for the time being (easier said than done). It has meant that for some seasons of life, one partner does more of the supporting, holding off a long-held dream or waiting to pursue certain opportunities.

As I have reflected on this metaphor in my marriage, I have identified three areas that have required us to adjust and recalibrate our angle of repose repeatedly over the years.

In part two of this post, I’ll share those areas and delve into them more deeply.

In the meantime, may you find moments this week to communicate your love and appreciation for those who are dear to you.

If you have read Angle of Repose, what did you think?

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My Strange Way of Living: Tales of Boarding School Life

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Taking Middle Schoolers into NYC for a field trip

I’ve been teaching English for thirteen years now. Six of those have been teaching seventh grade English at The Stony Brook School, a day and boarding school.

Before coming to this place, I knew very little about boarding schools. I didn’t know anyone who went to one until college. And that person was a missionary kid. I assumed they existed for families who lived abroad.

Learning to live in this community has been an adjustment for me. At times, the learning curve steep. Even after seven years, I can still chafe at the all-encompassing nature of my work. But, for all its challenges, I’ve grown to love the rhythms (a boarding school “word” if there ever was one) of this place where I work and live.

If you have ever wondered about boarding school life, this is for you—an inside look.

Normally, my Mondays begin with my first writing class at 8 am. However, this semester, most Mondays are mini-course days, which means regular classes don’t meet. Students take elective courses instead. During the fall, regular classes and routines suspended for a week to become a “mini-course week.” We had two sessions like this. Now, during the spring semester, we have mini-course Mondays. Each five-week session is spread over five consecutive Mondays.

If it is a “normal” Monday, I teach all four of my classes, each one lasting forty minutes. My two writing classes meet the first two periods and then I have a chunk of time before my afternoon literature classes. I love this schedule because I have a break in the middle of the day to grade, plan, and attend any meetings.

For this session, my mini course meets in the afternoon, which means my mornings are free. I love the slower pace to the start of my week. The last two Mondays have given me extra planning time, along with a chance to linger a bit over my coffee. I also have time to workout in the morning, which I prefer. My course meets from 12:35-2:35 pm followed by a school-wide assembly.

3:20-6:15 pm– “Free time,” unless I have a meeting or other obligation. I don’t have a set routine for how I spend these hours before dinner. Sometimes I run errands. Other times, I complete jobs around the house or work on school stuff. Sometimes I crash in front of the TV and watch HGTV. I wish I could say I regularly carve out time to write, but I don’t.

6:15-7:00 pm–Dinner in the dining hall, Monday–Thursday nights, unless I am on dorm duty for the weekend. In that case, I don’t have to be at dinner Tuesday–Thursday nights because I will eat in the dining hall for the weekend meals. Staying with me so far?

7:30-10:00 pm–Here’s where my evening schedule changes based on what day of the week it is.

If it is a Monday or Wednesday night, my main focus is preparing for my four, 90-minute block classes I will teach the next day. Once 8 am rolls around, my day is non-stop. If it is a Tuesday, my day extends into the evening with dorm duty from 7:45-11 pm. During the fall, these days were especially long and tiring. I taught my classes, ran to cross country practice or a meet (pun intended), and ended the day with dorm duty. Whew!

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The week before the cross-country Counties the team wears something different to practice each day. Crazy sock day is a favorite.

If it is a Thursday night, I congratulate myself for making it through another week of teaching. On these evenings, I find I’m not up for much more than Netflix watching.

When I first learned of my schedule this year, I was excited about not having any classes on Wednesday or Fridays. While I enjoy the freedom of flexibility of these days, I didn’t realize how drained I would feel from the previous day’s activities, especially on Wednesdays. I often tell people I spend half of my “free” day stumbling around my house while I figure out what I need to do.

Of course, scattered throughout my week are the once-a-month faculty meetings after dinner, lunch and/or coffee dates with friends, colleagues, and students, attending sporting events or performances, along with the normal tasks associated with everyday living.

Perhaps the weirdest part of my job for an outsider to understand is that the weekend is never completely free for at least some faculty. After all, the students live here. This year, the school created weekend duty teams to oversee the various campus activities and trips in addition to covering the weekend dorm duty. One of my responsibilities is dorm duty, which means I serve one night during the week (Tuesday nights) and every fifth weekend in the dorm. When it is my duty weekend, I am “on.” I attend all meals in the dining hall and cover the dorm from 8 pm-12 am Friday and Saturday nights. I also attend the Sunday chapel service. Yes, it makes for a full weekend, but it also means on the weekends I am not on duty, I don’t have weekend obligations. Of course, there may be the one-off commitment, but this change has been a welcome one among the faculty. It has made it possible for Brad and me to attend our church more regularly during the school year and it also means we can take off for a weekend if we so desire.

If you are tired after reading this, welcome to the club. Boarding school life is not for everyone. In fact, one of the best words to describe this type of work is calling. In the first month or so of our time at Stony Brook, I remember a poignant conversation I had with a now-retired faculty member. He told me that  when it comes to boarding school life you have to recognize that your time is not your own. This was (and still is) hard for me to accept at times. I want to draw hard and fast boundary lines. After a particularly intense week or stretch, I want to shout, “No more. It’s too much.”

But there is a richness and beauty to my life because of my work here. I walk alongside my students and others in this community in ways I never did when I taught at a day school. I celebrate successes and grieve losses. I cheer and encourage and chastise and bemoan, and the list continues.

On my best days, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. I’m grateful that Brad and I share this work together and that our children were a part of this community too. I’m grateful for Frank E. Gaebelein and the many others who envisioned a Christian, college-preparatory day and boarding school almost 100 years ago. I’m grateful that the world comes to my doorstep. I’m grateful for the small part I play in this larger adventure called boarding school.

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Treasured moments with friends are one the best parts of this community.

 

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A New Chapter, 2018

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First snow of 2018

 

How is it possible that it will be mid-January next week? Wasn’t Christmas just a few days ago?

It’s been a while since I’ve posted to Always Orange. I started a post several times, but never made any progress. But here it is. 2018. And I’m determined to post with more regularity in the new year. I’m sure all the life-coach experts just rolled their eyes at my last sentence. Don’t make vague promises. Set realistic, attainable goals for yourself. Well, the truth is I know my writing record is a bit spotty and I’m afraid to commit to a plan. So for now, the promise of more posts is as specific as I’m getting.

Anna returned to England last weekend for the second half of her gap-year experience. Saying goodbye is so hard. Thankfully, Brad and I will see her in February, making this stretch a little easier. Fortunately, Jake didn’t leave at the same time. He had an extra week of break before he returns this weekend. I’m still wrapping my mind around the fact that this is the new normal in our household—the saying of hellos and goodbyes to our kids as they move into adulthood and independence.

Despite the sadness of an empty nest, I find myself hopeful at this time of year. What will the new year hold? The cold winter months make it easier to be reflective. Sitting by the fire, curled up on the couch, puts me in a thinking mood. Some years I’ve been more intentional about making New Year’s Resolutions. I write them down. I name them. One year, I picked a “word” for the year. At other times, I wait until the start of a new school year,  using the rhythm of the school calendar to define my “new year.”

This year, I have some guiding thoughts or ideas rather than specific goals that I’m calling my New Year’s resolutions (see above about posting more). Last summer, I wrote a piece I called “A Writer’s Manifesto.” I talked about the kind of writer I want to be. Writing that post was hugely helpful. In fact, I would recommend this activity to anyone who wants a bit more clarity or definition to his or her life. Putting words on a page to voice dreams and goals forces you to think more deeply and carefully about them. When I am tempted to compare myself to other writers, which is often, I especially see the benefit of this practice. I’ve reread the piece several times to remind myself why I write and to move myself in the right direction.  

Speaking of writing things down, I moved away from a pen and paper planner a number of years ago. Like many, I made the shift to keeping track of my calendar on my phone. A part of me, though, still loves a weekly calendar—something I can write in.

Last summer, I met Jenn Giles Kemper, the creator of Sacred Ordinary Days. She came to my book reading in Waco, TX, and immediately I knew I found a kindred spirit. Even if you do use your phone as your primary calendar, the planner is more than an appointment book to keep track of your commitments. Each week begins with a “Weekly Examen.” A number of prompts are provided to help you  think about the past week and the week ahead. Space is provided to jot down any thoughts or prayers. In addition to providing a week-at-a-glance, the weekly planner also follows the lectionary for that particular year. Even though I didn’t carry the planner around, I kept it open on my desk so I could follow the week’s lectionary. Special pages are devoted to the church calendar, explaining the significance of each season. If you are looking for something a bit more from your calendar, check out this helpful resource.

I’ll leave you with a book recommendation for the new year because that’s something else I want to do more of this year, read. While poking around on modernmrsdarcy.com, I found the YA book The War That Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. All I can say is, WOW! I read the book in two days and my husband, sneaking the book whenever I wasn’t reading it, read it in one day. The book is set during WWII in England. Ada and her brother leave London to avoid the bombings and go to live with Susan Smith, a middle-aged single woman. Immediately, I was swept along by the riveting storytelling and the compelling characters. What’s even better, there is a sequel. Read this book for yourself and then pass it along to a young reader in your life. Everyone will enjoy it.

Thanks for reading. Looking forward to another year of percolating on the everyday.

 

Posted in Family life, New Year's Resolutions, Organization, Recommended Reading, Winter | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Late-Fall Shorts

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Adjusting to an Empty Nest

Anna left for her year abroad on September 3rd. Nothing quite prepares you as a parent for leaving your youngest at the airport, knowing she will be across the Atlantic for the next year. As I watched her make her final steps through security, I felt my smile start to quiver and my throat begin to constrict. I made it as far as the parking lot before the tears came.

Thankfully, she arrived safely to her school, despite a six-hour flight delay and navigating different trains before making it to her final destination. Since arriving in England, she started a blog and tells the tale of her travel adventures in her first post. Check it out. You can also see some of her amazing photography too.

The house is certainly quieter these days. I’m sure the transition has been made somewhat easier as the fall season is a busy one for Brad and me. While we miss both of our kids, we also feel immensely proud of them and their endeavors. All of Jake’s classes this semester relate to his major and it is exciting to hear about his film and playwriting projects. Anna has been able to travel and just returned from her first trip to Prague and Sweden. She spent three nights in Prague by herself. Whenever Brad and I talked with her during the trip, we both marveled at her common sense approach to travel and her willingness to explore new places. I never would have done anything like this when I was eighteen.

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What I’m Into These Days

Lately, I’ve been on a nail polish kick. Not sure what started it for me, but I’ve enjoyed pulling out my caddy of colors and doing some at-home manicures. Sometimes, I can make the polish last for a week. It helps that I don’t do many dishes with eating in the dining hall. In the midst of this busy season, it has been a fun treat for me.

On another beauty note, I’ve started to straighten my hair again. After wearing it curly for the past couple of years, I decided it was time to bring out the flat iron again. A couple of years ago, I discovered The Small Things blog in an issue of Better Homes and Gardens. I’ve learned a number of beauty/fashion tips since following Kate. Recently, she did a piece on “How to Flat Iron Your Hair for a Soft, Volumized Look.” Watching her tutorial was really helpful. I have fine, thin hair and her suggestions made all the difference.

I’m late to the party on this one, but I recently finished watching Victoria, season 1, on Amazon Prime. I missed it last year when it aired on PBS, but am so glad I watched it. I’m a sucker for period pieces. I love the spunkiness of Victoria’s character. Any woman who bears nine children and runs a country has my respect. Speaking of period pieces, Season 2 of The Crown airs on December 8 on Netflix. Just in time to distract me from grading finals.

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A Poetry Recommendation

Last year I swapped books with a writer friend and received a copy of his poems based on the Psalms. Opening King David: Poems in Conversation with the Palms by Brad Davis has been part of my devotional reading for the past year. I’m on my second go-around with the collection. I think I mentioned here before that I read the Psalms year round. Once I finish, I start over. I did the same with his book. Reading the day’s psalm and then Brad’s poem has enriched my Psalter reading. Brad and his wife have worked in boarding schools for the past thirty years. I’m particularly drawn to the poems that reference boarding school life. I can relate. I also like that Brad doesn’t make the life of faith a neat and tidy package. His poems are real and honest.

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Thanks for reading! I hope your November is off to a good start. Until next time….

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Overnight Getaway: Backpacking within an hour of Manhattan

All of my life I have enjoyed the outdoors. Whether it was hiking trails in Sequoia National Park with my parents and brother or walking outside with my children or dog, spending time in creation brought (and continues to bring) joy and pleasure.

So with an extra day off from school and the promise of amazing views and beautiful trails, I agreed to an overnight backpacking trip with Brad last weekend. At first I was reluctant. I had my mind set on car camping, with its offer of a shower and running water. After reading some reviews about Harriman State Park and the promise of a delicious brunch at Blooming Hill Farm, I relented.

Since moving to New York, I have been struck several times by how quickly a person can be “in nature” in a relatively short period once leaving New York City. It really is quite wonderful. Crossing the Hudson River about fifteen miles north of Manhattan, the landscape changes. The horizon—no longer cluttered with skyscrapers—fills with woods and the beginnings of mountains. In my mind’s eye, I imagine the original inhabitants of this land standing amongst the trees on the granite bluffs, scouting the river and the land below for food and potential threats.

Within the hour of leaving the city, we pulled into the quickly-filling parking lot of the farm. We made our way to the barn and queued up with other hungry customers to place our order. The pastries lining the counter were too tempting to skip so we each ordered one. I had the morning bun, a flaky pastry sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Brad snagged the last pecan sticky roll. Soon our main dishes arrived. My breakfast pizza with roasted potatoes, tomatoes, onions, fresh herbs, and two fried eggs was divine. These simple vegetables transform when roasted, making each bite a medley of flavors and deliciousness. Brad ordered the brioche bread-pudding french toast with fresh cream—over-the-top goodness.

 

More than full, we gradually made our way to the park. One of the few downsides of our trip was the heat. The effects of Hurricane Maria brought warm temperatures for late September and the high was close to 89 degrees! Thankfully, we were in the shade most of the time.

We hiked a mile and a half to the Bald Rocks Shelter. Another couple was already using it, but we found a lovely spot a short distance away that had a fire ring, a grassy spot for the tent, and a few logs for sitting. We set up camp and headed out for a hike/search-for-more-water quest. This was the second downside of our trip. Many of the creek beds were dry. I eventually spotted a pool of stagnant water, not what you want to drink, and we knew we were closer to water. Continuing down the gully, we kept our eyes peeled for flowing water. After a bit more searching, we heard a small trickle and found a tiny flow coming over a rock. We filled our water bottles (don’t worry, we treated our water) and headed back to camp.

 

As dark descended, the sounds of night filled the air. The evening was warm, but our bright fire provided ambiance and kept the bugs away. We shared our simple backpacking meal and sipped some wine out of a water bottle. Nothing fancy, but nourishing to the body and soul. Later, as we crawled into our tent, the nighttime sky exploded with stars. No, it wasn’t the Ritz Carlton, but something about the fresh air, the sounds of nature, and the chance to be away from everyday life for a moment, offered refreshment and a sense of peace.

The next morning as I emerged from the tent, I caught a glimpse of the sunrise. Standing there, transfixed by the fiery orb rising as it does every morning, I experienced a brief, sacred moment. I have no power to make the sun rise each day. I have no control over the day or the night. Yet, because of God’s goodness and love for his children, every once and a while the curtain of ordinary life is pulled back and we experience an extraordinary moment. Such as this one. Having the best seat in the house to watch the grandeur of a new day beginning.  

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After breakfast and another hike for more water, we packed up camp and headed back to the car, ready to return to normal life. I know backpacking isn’t for everyone. But, I am grateful for opportunities to carry everything I need on my back and to trek into the woods for a different kind of experience. One that requires me to hike to it.

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Some Favorite Family Read-Alouds

Hi friends!

Head over to my friend Jessica Snell’s blog to read a piece I wrote about some favorite family read-alouds. I think you’ll enjoy checking out her blog, and hopefully you will find a new title or two to add to your reading list.

Until next time,

Alicia

Posted in Books to Read, Children, Favorites, Good Reads, To Kill a Mockingbird | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sabbath Books

I’m excited to have Jessica Snell guest post at Always Orange. Jessica was my editor for Everywhere God. Her suggestions and observations made my book better. I love what she’s talking about in this piece and I think you will too.

I want to read more than I do. So do you, probably.

And this is true even though I already read a lot.

(So do you, probably. If you’re reading this—this lovely blog that is neither YouTube video nor cable news offering—you’re probably a reader by both inclination and training.)

In fact, I read enough that people laugh at me when I tell them how many books I have going at the same time. At minimum, it’s usually

1) A non-fiction book I should read (perhaps on parenting, or biology).

2) A novel or anthology I should read (I’m a writer, and so I have to keep up with my genre).

3) A novel I’m reading to my children.

4) A book that lives in the bathroom.

5) A book that lives on my nightstand.

6) A book of poetry, to be read a few pages a day.

(And, yes, it’s necessary to have at least a book a room—stop laughing at me.)

But, even though six-books-at-a-time-at-minimum served me well for a long time, I recently added an obligatory seventh:

7) A Sabbath book.

I added this last category because I needed to.

I found that I was reading more and more, and getting more and more discouraged. My heart was worn. The world kept looking uglier and uglier. And reading was…well, reading was becoming work.

And, actually, it was okay with me that reading was work! Some things are good to know, but hard to read about. Most of the books in the world that are worth reading still have hard parts, or ugly parts, or even downright disagreeable parts. You read them anyway, because it’s worth doing the work of panning away the sand in order to get to those flakes of gold.

But, friends, I had forgotten: Six days shall you labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest.

I needed to read books that were pure rest.

And I knew what that meant. For a book to be a book that gave me rest, it needed three things:

  1. It needed to be to my taste. No apologizing here. Some books are good books—in that they’re written with skill, or in that they’re of great moral worth—but they are not to my taste.
  2. It needed to be well-written. I’m a writer and an editor by trade, so poor writing pulls me out of the reading experience. I start editing in my head, and that’s not restful.
  3. It needs to be morally good. I don’t want to fight with my Sabbath books. I don’t want to have to be constantly filtering out the lovely from the unlovely.

In other words, Sabbath books tend to be old favorites. One of the first things I reread, when I realized that my heart needed rest and healing, was the entire Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy Sayers. And I also dove back into Lewis’ Space Trilogy.

These were books I did not have to fight. I didn’t need to analyze them (though they’re hefty and well-woven and stand up to analysis). I didn’t need to argue with them (most of the good things already in my mind were formed by them, or by books like them).

And they’re beautiful. They brought me back into the land of well-watered gardens, of rivers glinting gold in the sun, and of old and graceful trees, whose green branches bow down to the ground.

This was the rest my heart needed.

I will note, just to close, that these books, in general, are written by authors who allowed their own minds to be formed and shaped by the best of books, by the Bible. The scriptures are the River of rivers, and the green lands of my Sabbath books were tended by people who had themselves been nurtured by the scriptures. That source was part of the shape I was looking for, part of the echo I want to hear. The Bible is, of course, the first and best Sabbath book.

The Bible is the first river I want to swim in, and I want to listen to it and read it often enough that my thoughts start to echo God’s thoughts, and that the shape of His sentences carve the shape of my own. I want the inside of my heart to show the mark of that river, as if my heart were a fertile valley that was shaped by that river’s constant flow.

But I also love reading the work of people who’ve listened longer, and listened better than I have. I want to read the work of people who have also loved this world God has made, and who teach me to look at it again, and to see the glory and the weight and the wonder of being alive in it.

I want to fight my way through hard books, and argue my way through bad books, and discern my way through normal books.

But I also want to be refreshed by good books.

And by taking one day out of seven to read only the very, very best of books, I have been.

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Jessica Snell is a writer whose work has appeared in Christ and Pop CultureDaily Science FictionThe Lent Project, and more. She blogs about books, faith, and family at jessicasnell.com and you can follow her on Twitter @theJessicaSnell.

She’s also the editor of Let Us Keep the Feast, a book about celebrating the Christian church year at home. Need ideas for Advent, Easter, and more? Check it out!

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