As I sit at my desk trying desperately to focus between questions, printer drama, and the need to tell that student that he can’t surf wheelie-chairs in the library, all while trying to will away the constant din of conversation on the the silent floor, I’ve decided to write this post about something a little further from my day to day. Today is the last day of regular classes here, so the real day to day is ending for the year. We are moving into exams and then those year-end traditions that transition us into summer, off to college, up a grade level. So I’m taking a moment to pause, and invite you to my reading realm.
I never used to be a book juggler. I get so invested in each book that I don’t want to be reading anything else until I’m done with the characters, ideas, and worlds that I’m so immersed in at the moment. Over time though, and for a variety of reasons (children, long commutes, competing desires), I’ve shifted to being someone who is often reading at least 2 books at any given time. Right now I find myself in the delicious early pages of two pleasure books, while also slowly eking my way through one “work” book.
One aspect of book juggling I have come to appreciate is how the mental hangover from one to the next can sometimes lead to interesting connections and insights. Because I’m still mulling through the as-yet-unresolved thoughts and threads from one book as I shift to pick up the others, I bring those muddled thoughts to a new context and I often apply the same questions there.
Looking back at my reading list since the start of 2023 I’ve been on a real fantasy kick: Bardugo, McGuire, Roanhorse, and Clarke.There are other books mixed in, but fantasy easily sweeps me up. Rarely is a new world contained in just one book, there are trilogies and series to fall down the proverbial rabbit hole into. So, it was, in fact, a bit of a surprise to myself, when this week I paused and realized I was juggling 3 non-fiction books for the first time in a while.
I picked up Gathering Moss: a Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, by Robin Wall Kimmerer when my kids brought me to the bookstore for Mother’s Day. A few days after I started reading, I was not entirely surprised to find out that our Environmental Science teacher is also reading it currently. Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass has been a book that clearly made an impact on our school in the past year. The only book at all mentioned in our weekly Meeting for Worship, it has actually moved students and teachers to speak at three different Meetings with entirely different queries. Given how infrequently our community has been moved to speak at Meetings this year, it is clear that this book has power. Beyond that, it has also been one of the most frequently shared books by faculty on our “What’s We’re Reading” display. I myself managed some strange hybrid of both devouring and savoring Kimmerer’s words when I read it last year. Gathering Moss has been on my to-read list ever since.
Also sitting on my list for several months has been Katherine May’s Wintering: the Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. After reading an old NPR review sometime last fall, I’ve been intrigued by the narrative and mildly anthropological exploration of wintering, which May describes as “a fallow period in life, when you’re cut off front he world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider.” As someone whose personal “to-visit” list is topped by northern destinations, May’s inclination to also turn north for strategies to manage the cold and dark times in life piqued my interest (and also makes me want to make time for a sauna).
Meanwhile, on my desk at work, sits Attention Span: a Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity, by Gloria Mark. I find no shortage of irony in my inability to focus on reading it between notifications on my laptop and students dropping by. I often intend to read something professionally useful in the earliest part of my mornings, between opening the library at 7:30 and the end of first period. While most of this year those have been books more specifically on pedagogy, Attention Span caught my interest to perhaps help me to understand our student’s device dependance (and that deep discomfort they feel at being physically separated from their phones when I have to confiscate ones being used against our device policy) and also think through those tensions of student stress at just how much homework they have, declining mental health, and simultaneously large amounts of free time during the school day used in academically unproductive ways. Perhaps understanding a bit more about attention will give me some insight, too, into how to physically structure our library space to serve the real needs of our students.
Right now, in the early stages, there are threads from each that I want to tease out. I see the importance of cycles shining through. Nature and people cycle through seasons, we need dark and light, joy and sadness, energy and rest. Mosses thrive in moisture and go dormant in drought, only to reemerge healthy when the conditions are right again. Our attention needs both focus and distraction in order to maintain balance–we cycle out of deep focus to periods of rote engagement in order to restore our ability to enter periods of focus again. The restorative and calming power of nature is there too. Pause, look closely, notice the details. Kimmerer describes how her world changed upon first seeing a snowflake through a magnifying glass–that experience taught her that there was more to see if we look closely. Observation is akin to mindfulness in ways that appear through May’s writing, from nature walks to mid-night watches and restorative baking. I also see threads of a need for acceptance. May finds power in accepting winter as part of life. One cannot simply avoid that cold dark season, by accepting winter one can prepare and embrace the unique parts of that season. So too, with our attention. Times of distraction restore our ability to focus. Accepting that not all our time will be focused we can better consider how to be distracted well. These are some of the threads that seem to connect from all sides. As I turn the last page in these and the juggling act shifts, I look forward to where else the interleaving of pages will take me.
In the meantime, I’m really excited for the change in our cycle that comes with the end of classes. In my reflective mood, the exam period feels like an important liminal moment in our year. Soon we will have various ceremonies, formal and informal, where our students will transition. Our juniors become the senior class of 2024, our graduates become alums. The academic cycle moves us all into summer. And I, for one, am ready to accept the summer.