I had to check my photo archives to see how long it had been since the first time I’d seen the wall of blank dog-tags hung behind Boston’s Old North Church to memorialize the service-men, -women, and civilians who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. It seemed like only a short while ago, but it was July, 2009, when a friend and I went to the North End to celebrate her birthday. How quickly I’d forgotten the details.
It’s the job of any memorial to help us remember, just as it’s the job of a journal, diary, or datebook to help us keep time. How much of my life would I forget if I didn’t have a blog and photo archive? When I was a child, my mother faithfully recorded a sentence or two a day in an inexpensive five-year diary she kept by the telephone, so on any given day she could refer back to what happened this time last year or the year before that. My blog and Flickr serve a similar purpose, and they’re far easier to search. If I want to remind myself how much milder this winter has been than last, for instance, all I have to do is read some of my posts from February, 2011, when I was fighting ice dams and navigating waist-deep snowdrifts. What a difference a year makes.
That evening in 2009 when a friend and I went to the North End to celebrate her birthday, it was too late for the sun to cast shadows. This time, it was an unseasonably mild and memorably sunny weekend afternoon, and I remember one little girl reaching out to shake the tags, which jingled like coins on a belly-dancer’s belt. The sound of those tags ringing against one another is a memory I want to keep, so I’ll write it here to save against future forgetfulness. It’s the best way I know to keep time.
Just like that, January is over, and in its whirlwind aftermath, the first week of February has flown. January is a month of comings and goings, endings and beginnings: a time devoted to Janus, the two-faced god of doorways. And this year, for reasons beyond my control, January has seemed more two-faced than usual.
This semester, after ten years as a full-time, non-benefited adjunct faculty member at Keene State College, I’ve been bumped to part-time status: an inevitable casualty of ruthless statewide budget cuts. I’ve long suspected my days as a full-timer at Keene State were numbered, a precarious position that has influenced everything from my decision to give up my apartment in Keene to my choice of a cell phone plan. When budget cuts come, adjunct instructors are a natural target, and full-timers are more costly than part-timers. It was only a matter of time before my job was whittled by the budgetary axe.
Being reduced to teaching two rather than three courses per semester would seemingly give me extra time to walk, write, blog, and plan next steps, as I can’t afford to teach part-time at Keene State long-term: the commute is long, and part-time wages are short. But the momentous month of January has brought other changes.
Southern New Hampshire University, where I’ve moonlighted as a part-time online instructor since 2003, is currently revamping their course format, aiming for standardized content and design across all sections. Whereas I’ve always taught courses I myself wrote and designed, this semester I’m teaching two courses that were written by another faculty member and formatted by an instructional design team.
Teaching an online class you didn’t design is like house-sitting for a stranger: it takes a while for you to find the light switches, and even longer for you to feel at home. As my online students and I enter week five of our current term, it feels like I’ve spent most of the last month answering emails from confused students, trouble-shooting course design glitches, and otherwise trying to be a good hostess in a “house” that still feels foreign to me. It’s been a tremendous learning curve and an even bigger workload: at times I feel like I’m simultaneously teaching my classes, re-learning how to teach my classes, and re-thinking my entire approach to instructional design, all while fielding questions from students who are even more confused by the new format than I am.
I tell myself (often) that change is a good thing, as is any kind of learning, re-learning, or re-thinking, regardless of how daunting or depressing it might seem at the time. I tell myself (often) that one day I’ll look back to this moment–the transitional period starting in January, 2012–as a time of new beginnings: a time of moving forward into new opportunities rather than simply looking back on past losses.
Some days, it takes all the faith I can muster to simply repeat these words of encouragement–a mantra invoked for future hope–and yet I repeat them and repeat them and repeat them, as if to convince myself more than anyone. Change is good, and moving forward is good, I tell myself. I don’t know what the next step is, but a next step will appear.
The weekend before last, J and I took advantage of a warm and sunny day–a late January spring–to go walking in Boston’s North End: a welcome break from my laptop and to-do list. On our way back home, J and I stopped by the Irish Famine Memorial near Downtown Crossing. Long-time readers of this blog might remember the first time I visited this memorial, which reminds me of my own hungry times in Boston:
The Memorial consists of two free-standing sculptures, one of which depicts a tattered trio of prone and emaciated figures–man, woman, and child–leaving their famine-stricken home, an empty basket of want lying at their feet. The second statue shows three figures standing upright as they stride into their adopted country, the man’s eyes looking into the future while the woman looks back, refusing to forget from whence she came.
It seemed somehow fortuitous to revisit this Janus-like monument–one cluster of figures facing the past, the other facing the future–at this particular moment in my life. Looking back on my own hungry days in Boston, I can appreciate how much wiser and self-confident I am now. Those lean and hungry days, I remind myself, helped shape the present contours of my character: that which whittles also hones. And looking back on the early days after my divorce in 2004, I recognize another time of two-faced transitions, when the simple fact of being separated taught me that we’re always stronger than we think.
January is a two-faced month because both endings and beginnings are bittersweet: for every loss, there’s a gain, and every step forward comes at a cost. At Keene State, I teach my classes as if there were no tomorrow, not knowing whether I’ll teach these particular courses again. After every inspiring class discussion or satisfying meeting with a student, I face a contradictory thought: “I’m really good at this, and I can’t make a living doing it.” When you stop looking back at what you’re losing, you free yourself to face new opportunities: given the on-the-job training I’ve been getting through SNHU, might a future in instructional design be in my future? I’m still unsure and undecided. I know where I’ve been and what I’ve done, but I still don’t know what’s next. During this ongoing transitional period, I’m of two minds (not just two faces) about what my future holds.
I’m not surprised the groundhog saw his shadow yesterday given how long and looming Reggie’s and my shadow-selves have been this past month.
This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Tall.