Now for a Break from the Normal Programing: 2019 in Review

Credit to my fellow blogger, WriterInSoul, for inspiring me with her own year in review post. I’m usually a travel blogger, so I wondered if anyone would even be interested in a year in review kind of thing, but this type of writing can often be therapeutic, in a way. And this year has definitely been a year of highs and lows. I know that a years have ups and downs– and I have had much lower lows than I did this year, but I think the whiplash of sudden change from so good to terrible in an instant is often more unsettling to the soul than a long period of turmoil.

Twenty nineteen was a year of extremes.

The year started off very well. On the 5th of January I drove to surprise a friend with a meet up for her birthday. Rachel and I were roommates in college, and she was passing through the hometown of one of our other friends, Jana, on her way home (northern Illinois) from her hometown (Memphis, Tennessee). So Jana called and asked if I could show up and surprise her when they met for ice cream.

IMG_3132So, I hopped in my car and drove the two hours to see her for thirty minutes. And it was glorious. We laughed and got a little misty-eyed, too. Then she hopped in her car and drove north, and I hoped in my car and drove east, but not before I stopped and visited Jana’s father, who I am fortunate enough to also call my friend. He showed me the truck he was restoring, and we sat in the garage and talked about life and, of course, drank coffee.

He is one of the greatest men I know. Though he is not perfect, he and his wife are both the epitome of caring and giving people. Whenever I come to central Illinois, I am welcome to stay at their house on a moments notice. Like that night, I simply buzzed by on my way out of town for an hour or so of chit chat.

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In March I went on a wonderful spring break trip with students to Ireland (my favorite place in all of the world), and we had a amazing trip! Everything went right, the weather was amazing, the traveling from place to place went smoothly, and we were able to have some of the most amazing experiences ever! I got to hold a sheep!

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But less than 24 hours after this picture was taken, the lead chaperone, my dear friend Chase, got word that a former graduate had died by suicide. I write at length about that experience here, but I will write here that the death shook me to the depths of my being. “Bear,” as everyone called him, had been in my creative writing class the year before.  He was nearly always smiling, and when he wasn’t it was because he was angry that someone had mistreated someone else.  He was a self-proclaimed defender of the weak.

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Bear with his ‘Life on a Cardboard Box’ project. “Get it, Pdise? I misspelled ‘brawn.’ It’s funny!”

He rarely wrote seriously, always the clown, but when he did share his heart, he wrote about the death of his brother and how that changed him and left him heartbroken many years later. We’d talked about mental health and how he just wanted to make people’s days better so they would have a reason to smile.

An hour after we got the news, we were off to a new place to see and experience. I didn’t know how to handle the whiplash. I cried much of the day, and avoided people as much as I could (which is not easy when you’re the chaperone of a group of students), but as I mentioned in the blog post I linked earlier, the grounds at Blarney Castle gave me the solitude I needed.

When we returned to the states, there was the funeral to go to. I didn’t stop crying until well after I returned home. And even now, I feel some level of guilt that he didn’t know how much we would all mourn his loss.

Summer followed quickly, and with it the end of the school year. My summers are usually pretty tame, and I try to soak up as much time with my son as I can. I did a lot of reading, and went to several open mic nights where my uncle and cousin played and sang.

I also got a roommate over the summer, Nina, a former student who wanted to break out on her own, but with a little support. She’s been a blessing to our family now that my son gets on the bus by himself now rather than going to my parents’ house in the mornings. And she’s a great buddy for when my now teenager would rather keep to himself than hang-out with his boring mom. It has made that transition much easier for this mom, that’s for sure!

Nina and me as we try out “lip masks” for the first time – do not recommend!

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and this year, my heart was heavier than usual as I walked in the Out of the Darkness Suicide Prevention fundraiser. With Bear’s death on my mind as well as the other losses to suicide the school had faced, I felt like I moved a little slower. But I walked with a glorious friend, Amber, and her daughter who made the walk easier. We talked about all kinds of things, and they lightened my load. A day that could have been easily one of the hardest I’d had in a few months, had a positive spin to it, and I left the walk feeling much better than I thought I would.

The group that walked this year from Cascade High School

Just a few weeks later I got a text message from Chase, the chaperone who’d broken the news of Bear’s death to me just a few months ago.

“Call me” it said.

I was busy getting ready for work, and I was a little annoyed that she didn’t just text me with whatever she had to say. So I finished my hair and pushed the button on my phone to call her on speaker while I put on my shoes.

She was crying when she answered the phone, and my gut sank. I knew that someone was hurt or dead, and my mind whirled wondering who it could be and how bad it could be.

Nothing prepared me for her words. “Dylan is dead.” And again, my mind searched for meaning in this sentence. Dylan who? How did he die? Was it a car accident? But she was crying too hard to answer my questions. But I knew who it was. I just didn’t want to know. And just like that, in less than a year, we’d lost two former students to suicide. And this one was not only a student, but the son of a co-worker – the woman I’d walked with at the Out of the Darkness walk.

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I’m not entirely sure how I drove to school that day, only that it was through tears. And I’m not entirely sure how I told my first period class the news (the administration wanted to students to hear it from a person, not the PA system – which is a good call, just hard), only that it was though tears. And this time there was no Blarney Castle to clear my mind. I taught all day, I coached the Spell Bowl team (some of them crying on the bus) to win the county meet, and went home to be a single-mom. It wasn’t until bedtime that I was able to sit and try to process it all. Being truthful, I don’t know that I have completely processed it yet. I’d never had Dylan in class, but I knew him very well – he was an outgoing kid who loved to help others, he’d gone on the Italy/Greece spring break trip with us, I’d helped him edit papers for his English class, and he was the child of a co-worker and friend. So I knew him better than the teacher/student relationship.

It has never ceased to amazing me how the world can simply upend itself with one phone call. A few brief words and the trajectory of life is completely altered. That day was one of those days. And the haze of the next few weeks is honestly hard for me to remember. Hugging crying students, co-workers, sitting on the floor in the hallway talking to a student about how to keep moving when life feels so heavy.

And the year kept going up and down. My best friend had a miracle baby. My other best friend had a stroke and was in the hospital in Chicagoland for weeks and I couldn’t go see her. I felt like a failure as a friend because she needed people to help her, and I couldn’t make it up to her when she needed me the most. Up – down – up – down.

November and NaNoWriMo came along with tons of students who wanted to write novels with me. My 41st birthday. The end of the semester, and finally Christmas.

So much up and so much down.

But the big lesson I’ve learned this year is to make sure the people I love know that they are loved. I’ve learned I need to check-in with people with more than the often trite “How are you?” Also, I’ve learned that it is very important to take care of myself- to do things that are good for me physically and mentally.

Over the last calendar year I’ve lost 30 lbs and done my best to get more in touch with who I am and focus less on what I do not have. I have become less downtrodden over my seemingly terminal singleness, and realizing what being single can allow me to do: travel selfishly, invite people to live in my little home, and be available for people easier than if I had to take someone else’s wishes and calendar in mind.

Thank you to all who have been a positive influence in my life these last twelve months. I appreciate your encouragement, your mentorship, and friendship even though I am not the best when it comes to returning phone calls. 🙂

I anxiously await what I have to learn in twenty-twenty.

A Surprise Trip to Thermopylae

IMG_8703As I traversed Italy and Greece with my students (with the help of EF Tours), I enjoyed seeing the joy and wonder on the faces of my students as they witnessed the beauty of Europe. It was especially exciting to see the students see something they’d learned about in school. Seeing it makes learning so much more real, I think. And our surprise stop in Thermopylae was exactly that for one young man on our trip.

This young man, Brandon, is obsessed with Leonidas (of the movie 300 fame). Brandon was talking about how he wished he could go see his statue in Thermopylae while we were in Greece, but his GPS told him that it was several days away, and he was intensely defeated.

Leave it to our glorious tour guide, Rochelle.

We were at a gas station getting petrol for the bus. Side note: I had a very delicious cappuccino from an actual cappuccino machine… AT A GAS STATION… for the equivalent of about $1.75. This is one of the many reasons I love Greece.

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Rochelle heard him talking (I think) and casually mentioned over her shoulder that Thermopylae was, in fact, our next stop… and it was only ten minutes away from where we were.  I thought Brandon would start crying… in fact, I’m not a hundred percent positive that he didn’t cry.  Apparently he hadn’t taken his GPS off of the “walking” setting instead of the “driving” setting. Hilarious!

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Brandon’s face when he found out we were going (photo credit Chase Bauer)

Before you know it we were out of the bus at the statue.  In the middle of nowhere is the giant Leonidas towering over the bleak landscape. Rochelle pointed out to us the pass that the three hundred Spartans had defended. Historically there were more than the three hundred Spartans (an additional 5600 soldiers from other city-states), but they were still greatly out numbered by (depending on who you believe) anywhere from 300,000 to 2,000,000 Persian soldiers. When other soldiers fled or surrendered, the Spartans stood firm.

On the statue, which was erected in 1955, is an engraving of the phrase “ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ” which roughly translates to “Come and take them.” This was apparently Leonidas’ reply to Xerxes’ offer to spare the lives of the Spartans if they would lay down their weapons.

The joy of this trip was truly in seeing how moved the students were by the immensity of the statue and their awe of the tale of supreme sacrifice and bravery against unimaginable odds.

We would all like to believe, I think, that we would be able to show that kind of bravery. Leonidas and the Spartans are the epitome of that bravery. The monument is a tribute to that and also a reminder that we all have bravery within ourselves – the courage to do what is necessary and to show honor and perseverance.

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The whole group – including the folks who joined us from California (photo credit: Chase Bauer)

Igoumenitsa to Meteora – the unknown beauty of Greece

Due, I’m sure, to my lack of attention during Ancient Geography, I had no idea that the northwestern coast of Greece was so shockingly beautiful! The drive from Igoumenitsa to a glorious place called Meteora was beyond any beauty I have ever experienced. For those of you who don’t know me well, that is saying quite a bit. For decades I have sworn that Ireland (here and here and also here) is the most beautiful place on Earth. And in full disclosure, I still have an undeniable pull to Ireland that I cannot explain. However, the beauty of Meteora is completely different than the beauty of Ireland. It’s like comparing apples and chairs… they’re not even both fruit!

Greece was both luscious and rugged. The greens and blues were in such beautiful contrast to each other that I was really unsure of how to process that a place like this existed.

We left Italy on the Saturday of the Catholic Holy Week (the next day would be Easter). We entered Greece on the Greek Orthodox Palm Sunday (the week before the Orthodox Easter). In many ways it was like actually going back in time. A few of the students in our group had wanted to attend church somewhere in Greece for Easter services, but there weren’t any because the Orthodox calendar differs from the Catholic calendar. Who knew! Fortunately the kids weren’t too disappointed since we were headed to a monastery anyway.

We stopped along the drive from Igoumenitsa in Kastraki for a lovely dinner where my friend and I ate lunch on the outdoor patio. The weather was glorious — a little chilly in the shade, but the sun gave the air just enough warmth to make you comfortable.

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Behind us you can see the breathtaking cliffs of Meteora that at the time we didn’t know we were heading toward.

After lunch was over, we piled back into the bus and made our way to Meteora. All I knew was that we were going to see some monasteries that were built on top of mountains. I felt like that would be a fitting place for monks, but little did I know exactly what we would see there.

The Meteora monasteries are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and the closest comparison that I can come to is when my son and I visited the cliff dwellings of ancient Americans in the southwest. But those cliff dwellings were just holes in the sides of mountains. The monasteries of Meteora were phenomenal churches and living quarters that were hoisted up the sides of cliffs bit by bit and constructed on the tops of enormous outcroppings of rock. For years some of the monasteries were only accessible by a pulley system. There is still one of the monasteries that is only accessible through a gondola-style contraption that someone inside the monastery operates!

The monasteries are lived in, but for revenue, many of them allow tourists – even on Palm Sunday. We were required to wear skirts and keep our shoulders covered, and they supplied you with a wrap around piece of fabric to wear over your pants so that you could comply with the dress code.   After climbing up a horrifically primitive looking staircase up the side of the outcropping, we made it to the monastery. I am very afraid of heights, so this was no easy task. Most of the climb up I just focused on the shirt or shoes (depending on the steepness of the climb) of the person in front of me.

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It was truly an amazing experience on top of the world in Meteora, and the view from our hotel that night, was nearly as breathtaking.

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Kalabaka, Greece

I am sure that Greece will get at least one more stamp in my passport so I can come back here and spend a few days rather than a single night. It was a wonderful place filled with beautiful blue skies, amazingly green foliage, and ruggedly impressive mountains. I strongly recommend swinging by this lovely town!

Sometimes Lessons are Learned the Hard Way

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I have learned some really great lessons while traveling – like always keep your passport on your person at all times, locking your luggage with a TSA approved lock doesn’t mean that they will actually take the time to use their tool because cutting it off is easier, and avoid checking your luggage if you can. Those lessons weren’t particularly difficult to learn for me personally, but on the trip to Italy and Greece, I did learn one lesson the hard way.

To fully understand this lesson, I must remind you of my newly found understanding of my aversion to moving in inhuman ways, i.e. flying. If you missed that, feel free to read about it in this blog post.

On this trip with EF Tours, we toured Italy AND Greece. So after our wonderful evening in Pisa, we took a ferry from Ancona, Italy to Igoumenitsa, Greece. We took a bus from Florence to Ancona, which took about 3 1/2 hours. Loading up the ferry took nearly just as long, but it was fun to explore. This was the first time I’d ever taken a ferry of that size. It was basically a small town! The rooms were basically glorified closets, but there were multiple dinning rooms, entertainment areas, gaming rooms (for kids and adults), and countless decks to explore a 365 degree view of the Italian coastline and then nothing but the Adriatic Sea. It was beautiful!

Well.. back to my lesson…

So, I bummed some motion sickness medicine from a student and looked forward to a puke-less trip across the Adriatic Sea. A little bit later, the chaperones met up on the top deck to sit and chat until it was time for dinner. One of the parents had purchased a bottle of wine in Florence and we all sat down to share the bottle– about eight adults drinking one bottle of wine. I had about the equivalent of a Dixie cup’s worth of red wine.

And… you guessed it… about 15 minutes later I was drunker than a skunk, not a sensation I am super familiar with, and definitely not a sensation I enjoyed. I hardly ate any food due to the world spinning and wobbling simultaneously. I went to bed at about 7pm and slept until the next morning.

SO… lesson learned… motion sickness medicine and booze, even in small amounts, DO NOT MIX!

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My last unintoxicated view from the ship

The Enchanting Magic of Pisa

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On the epic trip that EF prepared for us, we were not “supposed” to go to Pisa. However, after we requested a side trip, our tour guide agreed to take us the Friday night after we had been in Florence.  I nearly didn’t go because it was an extra fee to pay the bus driver and a tour guide when we got to Pisa. However, since all the group was going, I decided to go as well… and my life is better for having gone.

We arrived in Pisa after dark, and like all of Italy, it was breathtakingly beautiful. Our tour guide met us by the baptistry (see my Florence post about the significance of the different buildings). She there gave us a brief history of the bad soil in Pisa that caused not only the bell tower, but also the baptistry to be slightly tilted.  People don’t often know about the baptistry because the tower is much more tilted.

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Because it was Good Friday, there was a quiet hush over the area due to actual services going on in the cathedral. Our tour guide even whispered as she gave us the history of many doors on religious buildings in Italy and around Europe. Much of the general populace (during the times the religious buildings were constructed) could not read. So often the doors told religious stories so that the illiterate masses could see them rather than read them.

These are the doors on the cathedral at Pisa, including one of the tiles that apparently has something to do with finding love… that tile is actually shiny from the humber of people who rub it for a blessing/good luck.

We were not allowed to go inside the cathedral as it was invitation only due to the presence of a very important Cardinal… or something like that. We were disappointed, of course, but it made sense why they wouldn’t want a bunch of American teenagers just bursting in.

So we walked around the outside and over toward the tower where our guide talked to us more about the tower’s history. Apparently, no one wanted to take “credit” for the starting of the tower, so there is some controversy as to who began its construction. It was only two floors high when it began to sink. They took a nearly 100 year break in the construction due to conflict with Florence and other surrounding towns. This was apparently a good thing because it gave the foundation a chance to settle.

The tower continues to sink a little bit from year to year. It was even bolstered up in the late 90s to decrease the degree of the leaning, but it will likely need to be done again at some point. It was quite an impressive sight to see. I’d heard about it, of course, but I really had no idea how dramatic the lean was. It is positively impressive that it doesn’t tip over. The uppermost floors are smaller than the others to reduce the appearance of the lean and also to add less weight to the structure.

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As we finished our official tour with the local guide, our main tour guide gave us ten minutes before we needed to head back. However, just a few moments later we started to hear singing coming from the speakers mounted on the outside of the cathedral. At first we didn’t know there were speakers, and it was a very beautiful and eerie collection of voices coming from… well, we didn’t know where.

And then, someone pointed out that there was some kind of procession off in the distance from the direction of the town. At the front of the procession was this very important Cardinal carrying an enormous cross, and people were just falling in step behind him, creating this long chain of people from the town who were all singing the same song that was coming from the cathedral. It was obviously in Italian, so I don’t know what the song was, but it was haunting and magnificent.

The procession went into the cathedral, and everyone poured in… so I did too! I got some amazing video of the procession – the Cardinal, other important religious looking people, civilians, and also first responders (police, firemen, etc). Everyone was singing and pouring into the church… it was positively magical!

I’ve mentioned before in other posts that I am not Catholic, but Italy has this way of making you feel a part of the religious experience even though you technically aren’t. The emotion of it all makes it very understandable that nearly 90% of Italy identifies as Catholic (even though only 36% of them consider themselves devout). On this religious holiday, it seemed as though the entire city of Pisa was in or around the cathedral as we open mouthed tourists stood outside.

I called my parents afterward (my father was raised Catholic) and actually cried as I described the beauty of the experience to them.

I don’t remember how much money it cost me to go to Pisa, but it was worth it a million times over! Pisa is a glorious place to spend Good Friday… and probably regular Fridays too.

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