How We Spend Our Days

Hello, all!

Right now, I’m still in Costa Rica, finishing up the last week and a half of my international student teaching experience. The experience has been great so far, and I’m so grateful to have had the chance to learn firsthand about the education system in another part of the world. I’ve worked on my Spanish (and nonverbal communication–very important when you’re frantic and can’t remember the word for “bathroom”), made some new friends, and made quite a few embarrassing but valuable mistakes.

But there’s one challenge about being here that I didn’t expect.

Because my responsibilities here are much less here than they were in the States, I suddenly have way too much free time!

I know… Not a bad problem to have, right?

It felt great for the first week to come home from school and just relax–worry about nothing, work on nothing… Just chill out and veg on the sofa with iPhone in hand. I didn’t pack any books–my usual go-to when I have free time–so I spent most of my time reading random Internet articles or browsing social media. But after a few days of this, the life of lethargy really started to wear on me. I realized that mindlessly scrolling through Facebook wasn’t bringing me any kind of fulfillment; in fact, it was leaving me tired and grumpy, leading me into the trap of lifestyle comparison that social media so enticingly offers, and overall, making me feel dissatisfied and unhappy.

 

 

I’ve been thinking about this concept for a while now. A few months ago, when I thought about how I spent my time, and why I never seemed to have time for all the interesting projects I wanted to do and new skills I wanted to learn, I realized that I was throwing away many hours of my life on what I call low-grade pleasures. These are anything we do to make us happier that ultimately leave us feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled. My low-grade pleasures included mindlessly browsing social media, eating an excess of junk food, or anything involving sitting around on my bum instead of getting up and doing something… In sum, waiting for the world to entertain, excite, or stimulate me, instead of going out and seeking positive engagement myself.

There’s a great quote in this vein by Annie Dillard, in her beloved book The Writing Life:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Essentially, there is no time that we can “waste” without it diminishing the overall quality of our lives, because it isn’t our great achievements or picture-perfect moments that define us. Rather, it’s our small, everyday choices that make up the bulk of our lives.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau makes the point even more arrestingly. He claims that men and women too often waste their time in useless pursuits–

“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”

Powerful words.

Low-grade pleasures aren’t problematic in and of themselves. There’s nothing shameful about eating a cookie or going on Facebook. But the problem is that these quick-fixes are easy and habit-forming, and they aren’t ultimately fixes at all. Too often, they give us a quick burst of entertainment only to shortly leave us frustrated and emptier than ever, without fixing the root cause of our dissatisfaction. And when we reach for those same fruitless stimuli over and over, it’s easy to feel trapped in those same few coping methods. We turn into little lab rats, pressing the same button over and over to fix our problem without really getting anywhere, and we forget how to pursue something that will give us true fulfillment.

After hitting a low point of frustration and ennui a few days into my vegetation experiment, I realized that I had to make a change. For the rest of my time here, I decided to consciously pursue some things that I identified as higher-grade pleasures.

By my definition, a high-grade pleasure is anything that brings you joy, or more simply, anything that helps you to grow. Of course, exactly what this looks like will vary from person to person. For me, high-grade pleasures include spending time with people whose company I really love; dancing and otherwise moving my body, especially outdoors; reading a really good book; cooking; being creative in some way, especially by writing or painting… The list could go on for miles. The common threads among these activities are that 1) they require some kind of effort or planning, and 2) they always leave me feeling better by the end than when I started. I learn something or grow in some positive way whenever I do these activities. Although it can sometimes be difficult to get started, they ultimately make me a better, and happier, person.

Since I’m currently living in a rental house in another country, my options were somewhat limited as to what I could pursue. I decided to use the unlimited potential of the Internet to my advantage as I found a better way to spend my time. Over the past two weeks, here’s what I’ve stumbled upon:

  1. I’m learning to code.

Learning to read and write code is something that I’ve had bouncing around the back of my mind for months now, but this is the first time I’ve sat down and actually worked to do it. I discovered Codecademy, a free online resource that uses hands-on techniques to teach you the basics of HTML and CSS. For a total computer newbie like me, this is an awesome free opportunity!

2. I’ve improved my creative writing skills.

I love to write, but the biggest challenge for me is always getting started. I frequently feel like I want to write something, but I don’t have any particularly compelling story ideas in my head. If you face a similar problem, there are lots of websites that can spur your creative thinking, like this fun (and free) online plot generator. But I have found that the most meaningful source of inspiration for me has been my own past.

Time for another quote. There’s a wonderful one by Flannery O’Connor that I love to apply to writing:

“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

In writer’s terms, anybody who has survived her childhood has enough material to write on for the rest of her days. Childhood memories are a goldmine of meaningful experiences and vivid sensory detail. Think back: What did you do when you went to your grandmother’s house when you were a kid? What did your third grade classroom look like? What did you want to be when you grew up, and why? Immerse yourself as deeply as you can in your memories, and then write whatever you see, hear, taste, touch, smell…

Writing like this can go a long way toward improving your skill as a writer, and it is also a deeply valuable way to reflect on your life. If you had a mostly happy childhood, you will be filled with warm fuzzies as you relive almost-forgotten experiences. If your childhood was difficult, this reflective writing can be a form of therapy. Sometimes getting out old emotions on paper can help us to understand and make peace with them.

3. I’m learning critical lessons about Peace Education.

I’m a middle school Language Arts and Social Studies teacher, and I LOVE connecting the curriculum to life and values outside of the world of the classroom. That’s why I was thrilled to find this free online course on peace education from Teachers Without Borders. Peace education is a pedagogical theory that rests on the idea that education is the best tool for building a more peaceful, just society. It is built on the thought of influential educators like Paulo Freire, John Dewey, and Maria Montessori, among others, and its main approaches include reflection, open-ended dialogue, and collaborative, real-world problem solving. I have learned so much from this course so far, and I know its lessons will be interwoven in my instruction as I start my first year of teaching in the fall.

If you’re an educator and social justice advocate, I highly recommend this course!! You can read as much (or as little) of the course material as you like, and everything I’ve read so far has been valuable for both my personal and professional growth.

Bonus: Teachers Without Borders also offers free courses on girls’ education, emergency education, STEM education, and more… Check out the TWB Initiatives website to see all they have to offer!

4. I meal planned for our two-week summer backpacking trip.

I actually started meal-planning for our August trip way back in January (because when I get excited about things, I am a zealous over-planner…), but the menu has undergone some serious revisions since then. This may seem like a hyper-focus on unimportant details, but if you have ever backpacked before, you probably know that food go a long way in making or breaking a trip. Getting tired of your food (or worse, getting physically sick) = less desire to eat = less energy for your body, which quickly turns an invigorating hike into a long, tiring slog. Having this free time allowed me to read lots of articles from handy websites like Backpacker.com, as well as forums where seasoned backpackers discussed their best meal-planning strategies. Now I am much better informed about how to create a menu that is as interesting, nutritious, and lightweight as possible for our 14-day ramble through the woods.

5. I learned to play Solitaire!

Okay, so this one might not be *quite* as useful as my other pursuits so far… But it was fun! 🙂 One of the few sources of entertainment that I thought to bring with me on this trip was a deck of cards. Unfortunately none of my roommates are big fans of card games, so with the help of the trusty-dusty Internet I learned how to play this fun, challenging game all by myself… (Which, as an introvert, I LOVE.)

I now whip out my cards any time I don’t have quite enough brainpower to focus on Codecademy or my Peace Education course but I still want to be mentally stimulated, or whenever I want to do something active with my hands. Plus, playing Solitaire with real, physical cards gives me a pleasing feeling of simplicity and nostalgia, and it earns me at least an extra ten points on my never-ending quest toward Official Grandma Status. (Other OGS point-earners include: Baking oatmeal raisin cookies, learning to knit, going to bed by 9pm.)

These are just a few things I have spent my time on lately. Since making the switch from low-grade pleasures to more productive and interesting activities, I’ve noticed a significant increase in my creativity, motivation, and overall contentment. (And in case you didn’t notice–everything I did was completely free! YAY for frugality.)

Of course, if you’re looking to use your time more valuably, your choices don’t have to mirror mine–the key is to find something that matters to you.

One last thing I want to say before I go. I discovered these activities because I had too much time on my hands, but I know this is a far cry from the reality for most people (and for me, most of the time.) Instead of having a surplus of free time, most likely you feel like you don’t have enough.

But if you’re stressed and always crunched for time, I think the idea of pursuing high-grade pleasures rather than lower-grade ones is more important than ever. If you have such limited time, you want to use it in the best way you can. When I was at my busiest and most overwhelmed during college, I frequently found myself trying to escape by surfing social media or excessively eating foods that I knew were bad for me. Instead of making me feel better, this just left me feeling guilty, frustrated, and more stressed than ever. But when I made the extra effort to do something I knew was valuable, it always brought great returns. It put me in a better frame of mind to do the other “stuff” I had to do, and it enhanced my overall mental health. I think it can do the same for you, whether you have free time for daaaaaays or just a few minutes.

Okay… That’s all I have to say for now. Thanks for reading!

How do you like to spend your free time?

 

The Choice You Don’t Have

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The question that Rebecca asked me while we were trapped in the woods for two days is still resonating in my head. “What is something that you’re proud of?” It’s a simple question, but one that was very very hard for me to answer. I found it so difficult to name any achievement that I felt proud of. It wasn’t that I hadn’t accomplished anything worth mentioning; I could have talked about the music I’ve written, or the comic book I’ve been working on. One thing was common in all of the things that came to mind, however. None of them ever felt completed. I have a confession to make: I’ve never beaten a video game. As a matter of fact, I cant truly name anything that I have TRULY completed. I’ll begin to write a song and once I feel it is satisfactory I save a recording of it and move on to the next one KNOWING that I could have added more reverb. I’ve begun writing my first blog post at least 15 times. Habitually, I begin working on a project, or creating something, until I am satisfied with the mediocrity of it, or become bored or frustrated and move on. Enter two day backpacking trip.

Two and a half weeks ago, Rebecca and I were discussing possible destinations for our two week trip this summer. We had some good ideas, but for some reason, none of them felt right. The idea of hiking part of the Appalachian trail felt perfect. I wanted something that would challenge our relationship, and Rebecca had expressed interest in trying to hike on the AT but didn’t want to do it alone. It seemed like something that was achievable and not too expensive. It also fit well with our timeline! The next morning we were already discussing gear with an employee at Walkabout Outfitters in Richmond. I knew that if we wanted to hike for two weeks on the Appalachian trail we would need some practice, so we decided to go on our first hike as soon as we could. We had two weeks exactly to buy, plan, and prepare everything. Rebecca planned out food, I took care of logistics, and somehow we made it to Reed’s Gap, VA.

We donned our Osprey Atmos 65 AG packs, skeptically extended our walking poles, and trod giddily up the dirt path into the unknown. About fifteen minutes in, I was overwhelmed with excitement. My eyes were darting everywhere, looking at the trees, the plants, the rocks. There was an overwhelming sense of excitement, joy, and fear (admittedly we are both a little afraid of the dark). My brain was going wild with ADHD moments. It continued like this for the next thirty minutes until we arrived at our first camp site. Then I turned into my father.

When I was little one of the things that bothered me about my father was how organized he was. He made sure, ESPECIALLY during camping trips, that everything was in order WEEKS ahead of time. He made sure to pack, and re-pack over and over again, and take a log of every bit of gear he had. When he arrived at our designated camping area, he wouldn’t waste a second getting everything set up perfectly. The tent had to be up before dark with the sleeping bags unfurled and ready to be occupied, the foodstuffs had to be safely stored away, our lights had to be correctly mounted on trees nearby, and any loose objects such as pots, pans, knives, blankets, and chairs put in their place. When we arrived at our first campsite, I immediately made sure the tent was up as soon as possible with the sleeping bags unfurled and ready to be occupied, hung a lamp light perfectly illuminating the campfire area, organized my backpack and cooking items neatly, stored away our foodstuffs, and scrutinized every single detail about the order in which I would execute the night’s tasks. If you don’t know, ADHD doesn’t lend itself to organized behavior, but somehow, I turned into my father that night.

The next day we awoke and began our journey. We needed to walk approximately 7 miles to the next campsite, and we felt great. My mind was entirely overwhelmed that day. Rebecca even mentioned that I seemed unusually distant. Part of it had to do with my difficulty multitasking but even more had to do with the almost constant spiritual epiphanies I was having. Most of my time hiking was spent in deep contemplative thought. My feet, legs, and arms were moving as if I had no control, almost separating my consciousness from my body. I wasn’t looking at the path in front of me, but at an image of my entire life, my purpose. The duality between the monotony of the walking, and the variety and beauty of the scenery was profound, and thought provoking. Even our conversation was philosophical, peppered with questions of reality, life, death, and self worth. Aching and tired, we finally made it to the top of Three Ridges Mountain and decided to make camp. We needed a nap, so we set up our hammocks and while Rebecca slept, I thought. There was a particular question on my mind. “Thomas, what’s something you’re proud of?” Rebecca was reaching out to me, trying to pull me closer, and trying to close this invisible gap between us.

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After a while nap time was over, and we decided to make a fire. I sat and stared at the fire, while Rebecca sat and stared at me, wondering why I wasn’t talking, wishing I would snap out of it. We discussed my greatest fears, and my current mental dilemma. Nothing helped. Hearing her voice has never failed to comfort me, but not this time. The beautiful sunset before us was drowned out by this emotional turmoil that had built up inside of me. Just before we went to sleep, I managed to snap out of it, and I wept with happiness. I was ecstatic to be able to break through the emotional wall in my head and see the face of my closest friend. Finally I had a sense of relief. My mental paralysis had dissipated, and I was happy again. Finally, I could sleep.

The next day was different. I woke up, feeling challenged and weak. My body was sore from the previous days walking, and we still had a long way to go. Just as we buckled into our (fantastic and perfect) packs, a thru-hiker named Brian passed us by. We caught up with him at the nearby vista, and he shared with us the story of his travels. He looked confused, a little scared, and extremely tired. He looked and talked almost like he was trying to ignore something important. We met up with him a few more times, each time getting a better sense of what the thru-hiking was doing to him and for him. The last time we saw him he asked if I was having fun, and I said I was having a great time. He responded, “Me too! … in some sort of… strange way….” I understood exactly what he meant.

Finally, our journey was almost over, and Rebecca and I were excited again. We found a large cliff face, took in the awe-inspiring view, stopped to eat an invigorating meal, and plodded along happily to the end. Wait, what? I actually finished something! At first I was ecstatic and proud. It was satisfying to have completed the entire fifteen miles, and I was happy to have recovered my emotions. We said our goodbyes and drove home (we won’t see each other for another five weeks!!!!) and immediately I wanted to turn around and do it again. I wasn’t finished.

I lost something on those mountains. So did Brian. I could see in Brian’s eyes that he felt the same way I did. Dazed, without any other choice but to continue on, but undoubtedly happy to keep going. I lost my sense of control on that mountain. All of that writhing back and forth in my head, that relentless dialogue of self-searching, was a desperate attempt at control. The mountain tore away my free will. It told me that I had no choice but to face the trail. It buffered me with wind. It unapologetically dazzled me with its beauty. It tested my mental constitution, and even my relationship. And I loved it.

Right before a difficult climb, Rebecca asked whether I wanted to continue or rest for a moment, and I jokingly responded, “There’s no choice like the one you don’t have!” No sentence could better encompass what that hike meant to me. I had no other choice but to keep walking, no choice but to face the fearful thoughts I had, no choice but to overcome my self-doubt and defeat the trail. Thanks to this lack of options, I finally perfected something. I had something to be proud of!

Something still feels wrong, though. I never really did get the mental closure I was looking for, and I believe the answers I’m looking for are in those mountains. So in a way, I still feel as though I haven’t completed anything. These mountains tease me with the promise of a task completed, and a challenging one at that. The Appalachian Trail and I have unfinished business, and in “some sort of strange way” I love it.

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The answer to Rebecca’s question is this: I am proud that we are both somehow okay after a physical and mental fist fight with a mountain. I’m proud that I can be proud of this accomplishment, even though it doesn’t feel perfected. And I am proud that I can’t wait for round two.

Are We Real Backpackers Yet?

A few weeks ago, Thomas and I went on our first backpacking trip together.

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Thomas took the picture of me, I took the one of him. You can see who’s the better photographer…

We have a glorious fourteen days of freedom this summer, and for weeks we were waffling back and forth on how we wanted to fill it. Travel to Italy? Promising, but too expensive. Road trip? Cool, but too much road and not enough trip…

Backpacking? YES!

I’ve dreamed off and on of hiking the Appalachian Trail for years now, but I’ve never felt I could do it on my own. Thomas was similar–he loves being out in the wilderness, but wanted someone to share it with. After Thomas casually threw out the idea of hiking a section of the trail over the course of two weeks, we quickly realized that this was the perfect way to experience something new, grow closer as a couple, and be awed by the simple beauty of nature that exists right in our own states.

We wanted to get all our gear in time to have a trial-run backpacking trip before I left for Costa Rica. So we jumped right in, feverishly consuming Backpacker.com articles and compiling a list of everything we would need to go from total newbies to nature-trekking aficionados (or at least look that way). Thomas compared prices and quality of gear, I came up with a menu of lightweight and calorically dense trail food (and broke out the dehydrator to make our own meals), and we both scrambled to buy everything we needed. Luckily, our efforts coincided perfectly with the timing of the March REI garage sale, and we were both able to score awesome deals. (I got an Osprey Atmos 65 backpack–practically new–for 50% off!!!)

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Thomas assembling the gear.

Within two weeks we were outfitted and ready to go.

Thomas’ co-worker suggested the Three Ridges trail near Lyndhurst, Virginia. We assumed that since he suggested it, it would be a good beginner route… You know, nice even trail, nothing too difficult, no stress. It turned out to be much more difficult than we anticipated–but all the more rewarding because of it.

We arrived around 6pm and hiked a mile up to the first campsite, where we excitedly pitched our tent for the first time and camped out for the night. We were giddy like kids trying out all our new gear–look at this! We made a fire! We have a tent!–and it was so exciting to realize that our dreams of backpacking were coming to fruition in real life. Everything seemed to work perfectly, from our dehydrated dinner and tiny stove to our cozy tent that our two sleeping bags just barely fit into, and it was amazing to realize that we were living the adventure that we had spent so much time imagining.

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The next day, we did the brunt of our hike. We hiked past waterfalls and alongside gorges, over cliffs and up steep rock walls. It was exhausting–much more challenging than the kind of long leisurely walk we were expecting! But even while we complained about yet another switchback (ughhhh), we realized that the views we got to see were so worth it. The trail was abounding with natural beauty, and we were in awe.

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By the time we finished our hike early Sunday afternoon, we immediately wanted to hit the trail again.

Afterwards, when we good-naturedly grumbled to Thomas’ co-worker about the difficulty of the trail he recommended, he reminded us that if we wanted to be serious backpackers, we had to get used to working hard. He was right: the trail was a challenge, but the difficulty had only helped us realize all the more clearly that backpacking was something we wanted to keep doing, a challenge we wanted to face again and again.

We complained a lot on the trail–but all along, we were doing what we had dreamed of. We had taken steps to make our hopes a reality, and they paid off. The result was exhilarating and energizing. We can’t wait to explore more, to go farther and become stronger and better at backpacking, in the future.

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Monteverde Cloud Forest + Review of Cabinas El Pueblo

 

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(Wall art at the Monteverde bus station)

 

Pura vida, friends!

This month I am in Costa Rica, completing my student teaching semester with a five-week international experience at a school in San Jose. Last week I shadowed classes in a 7th grade English classroom and got to know my teachers and students, all of whom are lovely and welcoming. But this week is the semana santa, A.K.A. holy week, A.A.K.A. spring break… And that means exploring!!

After fastidiously reviewing several Costa Rica travel guides, my friends and I decided on a voyage to the Monteverde Cloud Forest. We read about the lush green rainforest, abundance of wildlife, and exciting array of adventurous activities available, and immediately knew the cloud forest was one place we had to see. Let me tell you… Monteverde did not disappoint.

Over three days we went on a coffee tour and a night hike, horseback riding, zip lining, and ficus tree climbing. Since we were in the mountains, the weather was incredible–breezy and cool–and the scenery was breathtaking, especially when viewed zooming along a cable hundreds of feet in the air. There’s something there for everyone, whether you’re a huge adrenaline junkie (alas, none of my travel companions would agree to bungie jumping) or you want to just relax and enjoy the scenery. If you’re planning a trip to Costa Rica, I HIGHLY recommend making a visit.

 

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Why, yes. Doing handstands on a swinging bridge in the middle of the rainforest is one of my favorite hobbies!

While we were in Monteverde, we stayed at the Cabinas El Pueblo. The Cabinas are located just outside of the downtown tourist area of Monteverde, which meant we were within walking distance of several restaurants and cheap eateries, souvenir shops, and grocery stores. At $35 a night for a four-person room, this place is astoundingly affordable–and well-worth every penny.

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You had me at swan-themed towel-gami.

The owner, Freddie, was friendly and welcoming, and he was incredibly helpful as we got settled and started figuring out how to explore Monteverde. He gave us a map of the area scribbled over with tons of notes about the best places to visit and how to get there. Later, when we decided which activities we wanted to do, he signed us up for the times we wanted and arranged for transportation to pick us up from the Cabinas. We were worried about how we would find our way around in the unknown area, so this was a huge help!

Our room was lovely, colorful, and clean, and the Cabinas also offered a porch and a sunny lounge area with comfortable hammock seating. This ended up being a favorite place for us to congregate and chill for a while after an exciting morning of adventures.

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Best of all, the Cabinas offer a delicious free breakfast! Every day a full breakfast spread would be cooked hot just for you, including pancakes or an omelet, fresh fruit, eggs, ham, toast, coffee, and fresh fruit juice. It definitely made me excited to get up each day.

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I live for these banana pancakes, y’all. They were crispy, cinnamon-y, and goooooood.

Overall I would give Cabinas a 10 out of 10, and highly recommend them to anyone looking to visit Monteverde. However, one important note and possible downside is that the owner, Freddie, speaks little or no English. Luckily two people in our group are competent in conversational Spanish, and we were also able to talk to his teenage son, who does speak English. But if his son isn’t around and no one in your group remembers much from your high school Spanish class, you might have some trouble doing things like making reservations for tourist/adventure activities, unless you go to an outside organization to book.

I loved my time in Monteverde, and I would love to go back. (I heard that they’re looking for more teachers. Does that mean I can move there?)

Tomorrow we’re leaving again to visit a beach called Manuel Antonio. I’m looking forward to more adventures in this beautiful country!

Until next time,

Rebecca

 

 

Disclaimer: I have not been compensated in any way for writing this review. All opinions are my own.