Hello! I hope you’re staying warm and cozy on this winter morning (it’s one degree Fahrenheit outside here in northern Indiana). I’m just dropping in to let you know that I’m planning to be back soon with some new posts on creative writing. For now, check out my latest podcast episodes at https://anchor.fm/tess-r-martinus. There’s a zombie episode, a board game episode, and some opportunities to hear from people who mean a lot to me. Listen and let me know what you think!
The word rhythm, in reference to the daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, and annual practices that provide a semblance of structure to our lives, is trending. I have to admit that I’m a sucker for the concept; I am drawn to links or magazines that tell me how to improve my bedtime routine or make adjustments to my home to make it feel more like winter than fall. (By the way, it currently feels like summer outside where I am, proving that while the natural world does have rhythms of its own, these don’t always correspond to our schedules.) I think the word rhythm is a little cheesy when applied this way; it always makes me picture a Jamaican reggae guy playing one of those portable drums. (Is that weird? Don’t answer that.) But in spite of the over-trendiness, the cheesiness, and sometimes the total lack of correspondence to reality, I think this idea of rhythms (or habits, if you want to sound more practical or less Rasta) can be useful.
It is particularly useful for those of us who work jobs that do not have a set schedule—a group of people that has become larger this year, since a work-from-home schedule is by nature more flexible than an on-site schedule. (Read more about this in my post from two weeks ago.) I am thankful that, as an online faculty member, I can set my own hours. I want to be clear about that—I realize my flexible schedule is a rare privilege. I also realize that many online faculty members don’t have as much freedom as I do, whether that’s because of a second job or a heavier courseload or small children at home. But despite all that, I thought it would be helpful if I shared a bit about why and how I have developed some flexible weekly work rhythms.
First, why. I actually started learning the importance, for me, of having a semi-structured work schedule two years ago, when I went from working a mid-level administrative position—in which I was expected to be on campus more or less all day, spent a lot of that time in meetings, etc.—to a teaching-only faculty position, in which I was expected to be on campus only during classes, office hours, and meetings (which were rare in this context; my university did a good job protecting people from pointless meetings, at least in my experience). This flexible schedule, combined with the fact that I lived only a two-minute drive or ten-minute walk from campus, opened up an immense freedom to do what I liked with my waking hours, unlike anything I had experienced since my own college years. Unfortunately, I spent a lot of that precious time pacing around my house trying to figure out the best way to use it. Here’s an example: In my previous job, the daylight hours were mostly spent in a windowless office, so when I got home from work, I wanted to spend the remaining daytime out and about. So I had gotten into the habit of grading at night, and I had a hard time getting myself to sit down and grade when the sun was out. When I changed jobs, I was so determined to use my free time during the day for doing non-work things (even if some of those things were time-wasters) that I still ended up shoving all of my grading until the end of the day, dreading it all day, and staying up too late to get it done. Again, I want to stress the fact that everyone has different styles of working, and some people work best at night. I am not one of those people. But because I didn’t have a schedule, or at least an outline of a schedule, for using my daytime hours, I wasn’t getting things done during the time I tend to be most productive and get the most enjoyment out of my work.
I was still trying to figure all this out when I met my now-husband Jordan and made the goal of aligning my schedule with his (he works all day on weekdays except Friday, which is a half day) so that when we got married, we could spend our non-work hours together. And I was still in the process of making that shift when COVID-19 forced my spring classes online, thrusting me into the life of a fully-online professor several months before I expected it. Fortunately, I had received an excellent planner as a Christmas gift and was filling it out religiously every week. The planner and my motivation to align my schedule with Jordan’s helped me create a work week that resembles a typical 8 to 5 schedule, but departs from it in some key ways.
I won’t bore you with all the details of this schedule, but I do want to outline some of its main features in hopes that you might pick up an idea or two for establishing your own weekly rhythms.
- When it comes to grading, I dedicate one day per week to each class. I reply to emails throughout the week, regardless of the class the student is in, but for grading, when I’m done with the class, I’m done for the day. (There’s an exception once every eight weeks, when I grade the big end-of-course projects. That week, I pace myself more carefully.)
- I take Fridays off. (This works out perfectly right now, since I have four classes.) Again, I realize this is a privilege, and I’m thankful for it. But I don’t feel like it’s necessary to create busy work for myself just because this is a workday for most Americans. (However, during that big grading week, I sometimes have to work on Friday.)
- I start and end work around the same time every day. I start a little later than Jordan, who begins his workday at 7 am; I use the first couple of hours of the day to do laundry or other tasks around the house. I take a lunch break with him from noon to 1 pm. And I finish when he’s finished, at 5 pm, if not earlier. If there’s something on my work to-do list that didn’t get done that day, I cross it off and move it to the next day.
I have other weekly work rhythms too, like posting my weekly announcements on Sunday afternoons, but I’m afraid this post is already pretty boring, so I’ll stop. Perhaps next week I’ll write about the non-work rhythms I try to incorporate into my life—the “restorative habits” I write into my planner each week. Meanwhile, do you have any regular scheduling habits or other work habits you’d like to share? Like I said, I eat this stuff up, so I’d love a new strategy to try! As always, thank you for reading my blog.
I’m in one of those seasons (and I mean that in the currently trendy in “inspirational” women’s writing sense, though I’m going to talk about the revolution of the earth around the sun sense later in this post)…Let me start over. I’m in one of those seasons in which I’m having a hard time coming up with wise or even coherent things to say on my blog. (You may have noticed that I didn’t post last week.) I promise I’m having smart ideas right now; I’m just wasting them all on my students. (Just kidding about the “wasting” part, students!) I’m having a ball teaching three literature classes this semester: children’s, dystopian, and my usual intro to lit with a little bit of composition thrown in. The fun part about teaching multiple back-to-back classes in a day is that a topic from an earlier class might lead to an apt illustration coming to my mind in a later class. Yesterday, the sinking of the Titanic came up in both of my classes, both times as an oddball illustration that nevertheless seemed to resonate with my students. And I’m pretty sure I’ve talked about World War One in all three of my classes. And I haven’t even seen 1917 yet!
Oh, that reminds me–I was going to say something about the Oscars. I’m mad at 1917, actually, because I picked it to win Best Picture, and it let me down. I’m not ignorant of the historical significance of Parasite‘s win, and I’m mostly pleased that it did, except that it busted my bracket, to borrow a March Madness metaphor. I believe I would have won my family’s prediction competition had I gotten this category correct; as it was, I came in third out of seven (not bad, I guess. *eye-roll*).
Unlike last year, when I very deliberately watched all of the Best Picture nominees before the Oscars, I had only seen one of them this year, Little Women (which I greatly enjoyed, except that I was a bit troubled by the implication that the whole Jo/Bhaer romance was a fabrication added to please the publisher. Did anyone else notice that?). So I’m going to confine myself to making two comments.
- I have to say something about my fave category, Best Original Score. Although I would have liked to see my guy Thomas Newman win, I was happy to see the award go to another young composer (and a woman at that), Hildur Gudnadottir, who composed the haunting (yes, I looked it up on Spotify and listened to it in full, along with all the other nominees) score to Joker. I say “another” because last year’s Oscar went to Ludwig Goransson, another member of what I see as the upcoming generation of composers, for his epic and experimental Black Panther score. By the way, if you haven’t seen The Mandalorian yet, Goransson’s very cool score is one reason to check it out.
- I have a crush on Adam Driver. I mention this because he was sitting in the front row and they kept showing him. But you know what? I have an even bigger crush on my fiance, Jordan Martinus. And do you know what Adam and Jordan have in common? They have both lived in Mishawaka, Indiana. True story!
Okay, now that I’ve exhausted most of your patience on preliminary stuff, here is what I actually sat down to write. I went for a walk in the park this morning, and although there was snow everywhere and I didn’t see or hear a single bird, I started to have that feeling I get this time of year when spring is juuuuuuust visible on the horizon. It’s like emerging from a tunnel. Some of my usual reliable signs of winter’s approaching end have occurred: the Super Bowl and the Oscars are over (though the Oscars were early this year–did anyone else notice that?); The Walking Dead is coming back soon; it’s still light outside when I sit down at my computer to work for an hour at 5:00 pm. In a month, my students and I will already be back from spring break, and I’ll probably start making more sense in class because I find my brain is generally clearer in the spring. Oh, and there are just over 100 days left until I marry a guy from Mishawaka. (Jordan, in case you were wondering.) Next time I write to you, we’ll be a little closer to the tunnel’s edge.
Here are some things I learned during my first winter in West Michigan:
- Weather-related cancellations are rare. They are more likely to happen due to cold than to snow. I understand this because I know that cold can be dangerous, especially to the very young and the very old, but driving on slippery roads with low visibility is also dangerous–just saying.
- Speaking of slippery roads, I learned that I can drive okay in snow but that I will feel much more comfortable in an all-wheel-drive vehicle. I came to this decision when my Mazda 6, which has served me well for nearly 10 years, got stuck in the snow twice in one day in February. I plan to begin shopping for a small SUV soon.
- On the other hand, I learned that I probably don’t need a garage or carport. This had been one of my must-have items when I began home shopping, but I ended up buying a garageless house that fit nearly all of my other needs and desires. I talked about installing a carport, but now I don’t think I need it. Defrosting my windshield in the morning is a minor inconvenience, and anyway, I live close enough to my job to walk when I don’t feel like digging out the car.
- I also learned that you find out who your friendly neighbors are in the winter. During the late January polar vortex, one neighbor whom I hadn’t met saw me struggling to shovel out my driveway and came over with his snowblower. It was too cold to exchange pleasantries, so I still don’t know his name, but I’m grateful to him. Other neighbors helped me push and shovel on that day in February when my car got stuck twice.
- And finally, I learned that I can handle a Michigan winter. So to those of you who were hoping to gloat when I came crying back to Virginia–sorry, you don’t get that satisfaction. Heh, heh.
I graded a paper about Christina Rossetti this weekend, so I’ve been thinking about her poem “A Christmas Carol” and the various ways it’s been set to music, usually under the name “In the Bleak Mid-winter.” Take a minute to read it, and I’ll meet you back here when you’re ready.
So, obviously, we don’t know if Jesus was born in the winter, and even if he was, there probably weren’t copious snowdrifts on the Middle Eastern hills. But Rossetti’s poem doesn’t actually imply that the first stanza, which describes a winter scene, is the setting for the next three stanzas, which describe Jesus’ nativity. The “long ago” of stanza 1 could refer to Rossetti’s childhood when she first learned what Christmas means. (This would explain the childlike tone of the famous final stanza.) In general, I think stanza 1 is best read not as a literal description of the setting of Jesus’ birth but as an impression of the dark (literally and figuratively), seemingly hopeless world into which he was born and in which we still live.
Think about winter. It’s a difficult season for many people simply because of where the earth is positioned in relation to the sun, let alone because of the painful associations that the winter holidays have for many people. I am fortunate enough to have virtually no memories but happy ones of the Christmas season, but I really struggle with winter. I find the cold exhausting and the darkness depressing and disorienting. Of course, winter has a beauty of its own–think of a cardinal against a backdrop of snow or the dark outlines of bare trees at twilight. And winter has a few pinpricks of warmth (Christmas), hope (New Years), and pure fun (the February holidays: the Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day, and the Oscars). But these glimpses are scant compensation for a grueling three or four months (or longer, depending on where you live) of huddling against the “frosty wind” and facing a seemingly endless night.
When I think about long periods of darkness, the 400-year silence between the last Old Testament prophets and the birth of Jesus comes to mind. Isaiah was prophesying about the breaking of this silence when he wrote these words, which Handel later incorporated into The Messiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has the light shone” (Isaiah 9:2). We, too, live in a time when we want God to speak up and explain why life is so hard and what he’s going to do about it. But we, unlike those inter-testamental Jewish people, can look both backward at the moment where God came to be with us–Immanuel–and forward at the time when the Prince of Peace will “establish [his kingdom] with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever” (Isaiah 9:7). When he comes to set things right, winter will no longer be bleak.
I don’t normally write product reviews on my blog–this isn’t that kind of blog (though, in fairness, it is hard to say exactly what kind of blog this is). But I recently came across a product that has so astonished me and enriched my life that I feel it would be wrong of me to keep it to myself. However, in keeping with the literary nature of this blog, I will tell you about it in the form of a story.
Once there was a woman whose daily labor was almost entirely intellectual. She got occasional opportunities for salutary manual labor, as when she had to replace a heating element in her oven or shovel the snow out of her driveway. But most of her work consisted of teaching, typing, and thinking deep thoughts (well, some days she got to do that third thing). Therefore, one might have expected her hands to be soft and smooth, the kind of hands that an upper-class woman in a Victorian novel would be proud of.
However, for at least six months out of the year, her hands were as red, rough, and raw as those of one of those slipshod, loud-voiced women (fishwives or washerwomen, they usually are) who live in the seedy and morally questionable tenements of a Dickens novel. She never knew exactly what caused this–poor circulation, possibly–but no matter what she tried, her hands cracked, stung, and bled. She tried all the hand creams, from the aesthetically pleasing but largely useless Bath and Body Works kinds to the evil-smelling medicated kinds that surely were too nasty not to work. She went to bed with her hands coated in Vaseline, wearing handbell gloves to keep it from getting on the sheets, and although she found some temporary relief here, in a few hours after waking up she was back to looking like a bloody-knuckled butcher. She wore gloves every time she ventured outside from November through March, which probably did prevent her from losing any fingers due to frostbite, but it’s quite possible that the wool or synthetic material of the gloves actually exacerbated the persistent problem. Unfortunately, she also had a habit of wearing “statement” rings, bracelets, and other jewelry that drew attention to her back-alley prizefighter paws.
Then, she learned of a product called O’Keefe’s Working Hands. (To be precise, if this didn’t ruin the timeless quality of the story, I would tell you that her mother came across the product while searching for severely dry hand remedies on her smartphone.) This odorless, non-residue-leaving, waxy paste comes in a shallow green tub and is said to be able to heal serious cracks and callouses in the hands of people who actually do manual labor for a living. So of course, my hands (for this story is, indeed, about me) were no match for it. I have been using O’Keefe’s since late December, and my hands are smooth, soft, and possibly even attractive. I still occasionally use a more standard hand cream, just for good measure, and I wear my handsome gray driving gloves when I go outside. But it’s the O’Keefe’s that makes the real difference. The truly amazing thing is that I don’t even put it on every day–only when I happen to glance down at that lovely green container on my nightstand and think, “Oh, maybe I should put some of that on.”
The moral we can draw from this story: If you have dry, cracked hands and have never found a satisfactory remedy, try O’Keefe’s Working Hands. I’ve seen it at Walmart and Food Lion, so I’m guessing any standard grocery or drug store will carry it. It can also be ordered online.