Seasonal Containers

Childhood in Michigan

I loved the four seasons, and the way they provided a way of containerizing time. Each season had its own schedule and events. Easter ushered in spring time and led to anticipation of my birthday and the end of the school year. We could start spending more time riding bikes and playing croquet in the yard. Summer brought camping trips, swimming, badminton games, and bike rides. We spent more time outside than in, and the days just flowed one to another with time spent with friends in the neighborhood.

Four Seasons - Fenner Nature Center

Four Seasons – Fenner Nature Center (Photo credit: Aunt Owwee)

In the fall, the new school year was almost exciting, especially when it was accompanied by the slow-motion fireworks of the reds, golds, and yellows of the leaves as they changed color and drifted to the ground. The peak of autumn color is breathtaking, and the smell of autumn is amazing. The plum tree in our backyard would give up the rest of its fruit, and Halloween was just around the corner. The season concluded with Thanksgiving and pumpkin pies, before winter took up residence.

While Winter is my least favorite season, there was always something magical about the first snowfall. I also liked Christmas music and going shopping with my sister to buy little gifts for our parents and siblings. And who could argue with Christmas vacation! The tough part of winter showed up right after the first of the year. Going back to school wasn’t nearly as interesting as it had been in September. The days were cold, and sunshine didn’t stay around very long. The evenings were dark. Snow’s novelty had worn off; the only good that came of it now was the chance of a snow day. Luckily, most winters, that wish would be granted at least once.

Seasons of Adulthood

As I started my own family, the seasons continued in much the same way, the ebb and flow of activity meshing with the way I remembered things from childhood. Even though I worked in the summer instead of spending my days outdoors, I still enjoyed the daylight that extended far into the evening. Even though I had a job that often required me to work on holidays like Easter and Christmas, we found ways to modify our family celebrations to honor the contents of each season.

As the children started leaving the nest, the academic calendar still guided my experience of the season, first as I completed my B.A. as my daughter finished high school, and then during my time at graduate school. The seasons and the academic year coincided–the dreary winter days coming at the very time when focus and purpose seemed to be at their lowest. Autumn and spring were once again the friendliest seasons.

My first Christmas in Taiwan

My first Christmas in Taiwan

Two things changed when I came to Taiwan, but they were only external changes. First, the academic year is different. A case in point: here it is January 11, and this week’s tasks include grading final exams and posting grades on the computer system. In other words, classes and finals are over, and winter break has begun. I know this sounds weird to my colleagues in the States. A couple of the differences: Our semesters are 18 weeks long. We don’t have a break at Thanksgiving or even Christmas Day–as evidenced by the picture on the left. We do get New Year’s Day off, but we made up the extra Monday that came with it by teaching on Monday of exam week.

The second thing is the difference in the physical characteristics of the seasons. My students talk about Taiwan’s four seasons, but they don’t have snow. Their winter is cold (but not as cold as many parts of the US), often with days and days of rain. Spring is beautiful, sunny and pleasant. Summer is hot, hot, and hot with very high humidity. Luckily, I visit my family each summer back in the States. It takes until mid-October, though, for the temperatures to be reasonable. Classroom temperatures during September can be rather unpleasant. But once mid-October comes, it’s hard to argue with the great weather. And there are days of sweater weather even in December.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about seasonal containers. Vacations, holidays, the natural ebb and flow of the seasons, and what that means to my schedule. And unfortunately, I have to confess that the seasons and other seasonal breaks don’t make much of a difference in my life. My busyness has taken away my sense of the seasons as containers for specific types of activities. The days have become a list of tasks that spill over into the next day, and the next day, and the next week, the next month, the next season, the next year. Unfortunately, I got to the point where I saw no end in sight.

While others are planning activities and even trips for the CNY (Chinese New Year) before the next 18-week semester begins, I am trying to figure out how to catch up on the multitude of tasks and responsibilities that I have added to my schedule, often without thinking things through. It’s second nature for me to take on every project that comes to me. Hence the moratorium of December 28 was so essential for me if I am going to reclaim any sense of balance in my life.

In the days ahead, I’m going to be creating containers of time and space to begin clearing my schedule and opening my life to the cyclical nature of the seasons. Calendars, to-do lists, index cards, grids with tasks arranged by time, by category, by priority are the tools I am exploring as I try to see my way clear to a more considered life. Stay tuned as I find a new way to create space for myself and begin to appreciate the seasons again.

A Gift of Time

English: Hagnaby Road, Old Bolingbroke Another...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was younger, I used to get excited about snow days. Although I wasn’t a big fan of winter, snow days almost made winters worthwhile. Even better is when the weather was bad enough that school was called off for the next morning before we even went to bed. Going to bed without turning on the alarm clock was great. But even if it didn’t happen before bedtime, we didn’t mind too much. We’d get up right on time the next morning and turn on the radio and listen intently for the name of our school district to be included in the list of cancellations. Since we were already up, it just gave us a little extra time to celebrate the day.

Whether we found out the night before or on the morning of the snow day, I loved the unexpected release from the usual schedule. It’s not that I disliked school (at least, not most of the time), but I liked the surprise of having an unexpected chunk of time to use for all kinds of fun and exploration. My sister and I had a variety of activities that we enjoyed on these days. Our multi-day Monopoly games, writing letters for our pen pal competition, reading, or baking. We would put music on the stereo and explore the possibilities.

When I had my own family, I still loved snow days. I enjoyed the unscheduled days with my children. My office was located in a neighboring school district, and if a snow day was called in that district, our office was also closed. When the weather looked “promising,” the kids and I could often be found refreshing the TV station’s website every couple of minutes, waiting for the moment when our two school districts would announce closures. Games, puzzles, special menus, baking, and art projects were a few of the activities that we enjoyed on those days. And sometimes, it was nice just to catch up on a few things that had been falling behind. But even when those snow days involved a few chores or tasks, they always seemed a little less burdensome when they were done after being excused from something else.

In Time is Money?I wrote that there are no savings accounts for time, but snow days at least served as a coupon for some additional time that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. They became my first conscious experience of a gift of time. Whenever the weather graced me with a day off, I had a few projects ready to take advantage of the coupon before it expired. I would also receive gifts of time when piano students cancelled or postponed lessons. Or when my husband would suggest that we go out to dinner, and my afternoon would be freed from thoughts of dinner preparation.

Sometimes, a gift of time doesn’t seem like a gift initially. When I wrote about the burst of creative energy I experienced after a job loss, that was a real blessing, but I didn’t find feel that way at first. I had to get past some of the negative aspects of the experience and begin to see what I could do with the time I suddenly had. It took a while, but eventually, I saw it for the gift it was. A further gift of time came after a move across the country to take a new job (to replace the one I had lost). When I was hired, the job didn’t actually start for nearly a month. With that much time available to me while knowing I had a job to go to made settling into our new home a real pleasure.

Pile of gorgeous gifts

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now I live in Taiwan, where we don’t have snow days–ever. Occasionally a typhoon day, but so far during my time here, they only happen on the weekend. Still I find ways to make pockets of time for myself, time coupons that I capture for myself, even though not as often as I would like. Still, there are times when a meeting gets postponed, or a student changes an appointment, and there it is–another gift. Just last week, a student who meets with me weekly, wrote down Wednesday, but thought it was Thursday. So on Wednesday, she didn’t show up at the appointed time. I started work on a project while I waited for her, and by the time I figured out she wasn’t coming that day, I had quite a bit done. We figured things out, and she ended up coming the next day, but even the rearranging of the schedule offered a gift of time, a different perspective of how to use the containers of time I had available, shifting things from one day to another and back. In that particular instance, it is possible that I accomplished more in those rearranged two days, than I would have if we had stayed with the original plan. The gift allowed me to think about those pockets of time differently.

The other thing about living in Taiwan is that school semesters are marked differently. We had classes today, December 25. I personally don’t teach on Tuesday, but while schools in the US are on their holiday recess, we are meeting. We have January 1 off, but then we finish week 17 of our 18-week semester. After I finish grading finals, we have our break, and for Chinese New Year, that break is substantial–about a month. Like any gift of time, I can squander it or cherish it.

This year brings a special challenge. I have a major textbook project that needs to move forward substantially during the break. But I also desperately need to recharge my batteries, to find some enjoyment in the days, and not just run from one to-do list to another. This time, I have to give myself the gift of time. I can’t rely on snow storms or typhoons or cancelled meetings. The gift I need to give myself is to find the balance in those days–to decide what’s important, to arrange the days into containers of time, assign some of those containers to the responsibilities I have, and allow for others to be open to surprise and wonder. The best thing is I don’t have to rely on the weather to give me what I need. With a little planning and creativity, I can give this gift to myself.