Sunday, April 23, 2017

It's Not The Altitude; It's The Attitude

by Guest Writer: Darsha Dodge

“You’re…what?”
“I’m going to Everest.”
“When?”
“Next month.”
“I know you’re serious, but…you’re serious?”
“Yes.”
“With who?”
“Alone.”
“Well…uh…okay then.”
 

I had this conversation at least 7 times in mid-January of this year when I announced that I’d be taking a month off of work to make the trek to Everest Base Camp in Nepal. At first, it was a pipe-dream, a delusion, and then, as if God was clearing the path for me, everything fell into place. I had the money – just enough to cover my expenses for the trip and keep my bills afloat while abroad – and our Gift Shop was undergoing a remodel, meaning we were encouraged to take vacation time in order to keep our sanity. The only thing left was organizing my academics for those few weeks, and in an unlikely twist of events, the only professor whose classwork I’d be missing just so happened to have traveled to Nepal previously, fallen in love with it, and agreed to allow me to make up nearly a months’ worth of work so that I could go. That was the last piece to fall into place. I had the tickets booked – with time in New York City and Dubai along the way – the guide reserved, and my duffle bag packed (and let me tell you, that was an adventure in and of itself!).

On February 17th, I stopped by work to hug everyone goodbye – including the person who unwittingly pushed me into taking time off – got in my car, and drove 6 hours to Denver to catch my midnight flight to New York. I spent my 12-hour layover riding the metro, searching for a mysterious Staten Island pizza joint, and walking around in the cold but sunny Central Park. Late that evening, I boarded a flying city (seriously, Emirates A380 Airbuses are m-a-s-s-i-v-e) bound for the United Arab Emirates, turned my music up, and spent 13 hours in the most luxurious economy-class flight cabin known to man. We landed in Dubai around 2 the next afternoon, where I promptly transited through UAE Customs (a terrifying experience), and spent the next several hours wandering around this east-meets-west, old-meets-modern city, where the worlds’ tallest building dominates the skyline just miles from crowded and dusty streets packed with vendors trying to make enough to survive. I also got a first hand look at Jumeirah Beach (pictured below). 


As a white woman who speaks only a few sentences of basic Arabic, I have never felt safer in a foreign city. I took a taxi to the beach, where the sun was starting to set the sky ablaze behind the worlds’ only 7-star hotel (the Burj al Arab), and walked in the cool sand while the azure water lapped at the bottom of my jeans. I walked down the pathway of Dubai’s marina, a towering metropolis dotted with elegant restaurants and expensive high-rise housing, and stopped to eat a fancy waffle (didn’t know there was such a thing) while listening to the call of prayer coming from a decadent mosque just across the canal from me. Here I was, almost 22, standing alone in a foreign city, in a part of the world where “white women just don’t go,” and I was comfortable. 

There is a certain magic, I’ve found, in being completely alone in a foreign country. There's a certain sense of responsibility that comes with the freedom of being who and whatever you want. But the adventure hadn’t even really begun yet, and I boarded an early morning flight to the bustling Nepali capital of Kathmandu, where my trek was to begin.

In the west, we have rules. Traffic laws. Social norms. Things like, “don’t pass people on the wrong side of the road while driving well-over the speed limit,” and “personal space is an important thing.” Nepali’s don’t follow this way of thinking. After 45 minutes of arguing my way through customs (“You here for trekking, go this line.” “You need this paper, go find.” “Where you from? Ah, American…woman…alone…interesting.”), I was thrust violently into a throng of people struggling to find their rides. After spotting an adorably short Nepali man holding a sign with my name and waving excitedly, I put on my sunglasses in the coolest way possible (I decided to channel my inner Indiana Jones for this adventure) and made my way over to him. This was Min, my guide, who would become a close friend and father-like figure over the coming weeks. We made our way to an old Suzuki taxi, where the driver slammed on the gas and began weaving erratically through Kathmandu traffic (which includes cars, pedestrians, motorcycles, dogs, and the occasional cow), dropping us off at our hotel and proving that I’ve never been happier to see solid ground. A few quick introductions, safety briefings, and gear runs, and I collapsed into bed with the windows open and the unrelenting noise of the backpackers’ district of Thamel singing me to sleep.

6 am we were up, dressed, packed, and headed off to the airport to catch a mountain flight to Lukla (9,318 ft.), the worlds’ most dangerous airport, where the long trek to EBC begins. After a lax security check and some hardboiled eggs for breakfast, Min and I pushed our way into the waiting area, where I met Blaine, a friendly and talkative forty-something man from Alaska, who had only intended on trekking to Namche Bazaar with us and ended up staying the entire trek. We boarded a cramped prop plane (where I elbowed my way past some Swedes for a left-side seat – where the Himalayan views are!) and took off on the bumpiest 45-minute flight that exists in the world today…a flight that ends with 1000 feet of landing strip that slopes upward drastically. This is where our adventure was to begin.

Trains of yaks wearing bells passed us on the narrow and steep cobbled path, and we faced our fears crossing suspension bridges swinging over deep drops in the Dudh Koshi (Milk River). We overnighted in Phakding (8,690 ft.), where we made friends with a British couple, Paul and Faye, who schooled us in pool, and met a Scottish fellow named Christopher who would become near and dear to me by the end of the trip. The next day brought a grueling uphill climb to Namche Bazaar (11,287 ft.), the Sherpa capital, where we had stunning views of Thamserku and the Kongde Range…views we paid for with a steep climb to our acclimatization point…or really anywhere we wanted to go in the village! Our second day in Namche meant we got our first view of Everest, Ama Dablam, and Nuptse – after an “easy uphill walk” to the Everest View Hotel. We met up with many of the other teams who were on their way to various destinations in the Himalayas, enjoyed some coffee, and spent the evening watching my favorite climbing movie (“Everest,” released in 2005) and eating popcorn. From Namche, we pushed onward to Tengboche (12,684 ft.), site of the famous Tengboche Monastery, where we were fortunate enough to witness the prayer chants for Tibetan New Year. I also, in traditional Darsha-fashion, made friends with the local street dogs. 


It was a cold night, but being able to see the summit of Mount Everest from my window made it all worth it. We climbed on to Dingboche (14,271 ft.), passing our Scottish friend along the way, and spent that evening chatting with Nicole, a fun and adventurous Aussie who was going guide-less to Base Camp. Skipping our second acclimatization day in favor of using it as a rest day on the descent, we continued on to Lobuche (16,177 feet), where I fell seriously ill almost immediately. I spent several hours lying face down in my bed, every movement a pain, stomach doing backflips, head pounding, ears ringing, and unable to even walk straight. Blaine, Min, and Nicole sat me in front of the wood stove, wrapped me in blankets, brought me hot tea, and sent for a doctor from the Pyramid Research Center just outside of Lobuche. It was the only time in my life that a group of men were making decisions about my health that I was not involved in – and the only word I understood of the entire hushed conversation was “helicopter.” The doctor stayed the night with us, insisting I be on oxygen (which I refused, as it would be impossible to acclimatize higher if I took it), and by the next morning, I was almost completely back to normal. To Min’s surprise, we pushed higher to Gorak Shep (16,962 ft.) and then made the summit of Kala Patthar (18,193 ft.) – the highest altitude we would reach during our ascent! I won’t say that I didn’t cry on the ascent and descent – I was unbelievably exhausted and mildly afraid my brain would swell up from cerebral edema – but the view was undoubtedly worth it, even though my nice porter kid kept looking at me like I was a sad puppy. 

We spent the night on the glacier in Gorak Shep, where other teams were also at the same level of “done” that we were; no one could eat solid food, hold their head up for long, or carry on a conversation for more than a few seconds. Early the next morning, after a night spent shivering in 4 layers of clothing, three pairs of socks, a sleeping bag, and two yak wool blankets, we headed out for the pinnacle of our adventure – the reason we were all here – Everest Base Camp. My knees were swollen up like cantaloupes, my feet were covered thickly in rough callouses, and it was the single most exciting morning of my life! We walked, climbed, and trudged on for a couple of hours before descending sharply out onto a rocky moraine perched in front of a wide field of blue glacial ice – the Khumbu Ice Fall – undoubtedly the most dangerous part of climbing Mount Everest, and the most recognizable feature of Everest Base Camp. Millions of tons of sparkling glacial ice cracking and yawning behind us, Blaine and I skipped excitedly out to the piles of rocks wrapped in prayer flags, surrounded by mementos, urns, and rocks with messages to deceased loved ones written on them. There were only a few bright orange tents – belonging to the Spanish climbing expedition – as the day we reached Base Camp was the first official day of climbing season, and most teams would be arriving soon. We took turns photographing each other, leaving mementos we brought, listening to Min whistle and sing in Nepali, and staring in awe at the feat we’d just completed. Everest Base Camp, at 17,594 feet, was our final destination. This was what we’d slogged on for, what we hadn’t showered in days for, what we’d been eating rice and soup for.

As we stood in the shadow of these giants, I couldn’t help but think of the immensity of what I’d just done. 8 years prior, I’d been given a set of Tibetan prayer flags, which I’d kept in every room I’d lived in since…and now here I was, standing at the base of Chomolungma – the Tibetan name for Mount Everest (meaning “Mother of the Earth”) surrounded by them. I thought about my favorite climber – Scott Fischer – who died in the 1996 disaster, and who stood in much the same spot I was at some point. 
Here I was, an androgynous blob of polar fleece, khaki, and exhaustion, and I’d never felt like such a strong woman. I was 21, standing at the base of the world’s tallest mountain after spending nearly two weeks trekking through the remote Solukhumbu region of Nepal, having not showered in days, and having nearly been forced to descend due to altitude sickness. I felt strong. I felt invincible. I felt the prayers and well-wishes of the amazing people who supported me during my journey. 



Something about me in that moment - standing in the vicious Himalayan sun, staring up through the ice fall – something changed. I was at the bottom of the top of the world, and everything negative that I’d ever thought about myself – about being too much or not being enough, about my abilities or lack thereof – I left it there at the base of that mountain. We strolled back into Lukla a few days later, caught our plane back to Kathmandu, and spend our final night with the great people that we’d met during our travels. Min hugged us both, put on his sunglasses, shouldered his massive pack, and strolled off casually into the chaos of Kathmandu. Blaine left that evening, and after a fun night with Christopher and our new Austrian friend (Anita) involving delicious Nepali rum and an interesting rice-based alcohol (which was probably paint thinner passed off as consumable) I boarded my flight back towards reality.

It seems like a lifetime ago that I was standing there on that glacier in the middle-of-nowhere Nepal, staring up at the jagged peaks ringing us, watching Blaine leave a collection of rocks for his aging mother, listening to the thunderous crack of avalanches raining down around us. Sometimes, when I’m lying in my warm bed at night, I can still smell the wood-burning stoves that definitely saved our toes from certain frostbite, I can still hear the chime of the bells from the yak trains carrying supplies up and down the mountain, and I can still feel the unrelenting wind that chapped and cracked our sensitive skin. My map of the region that I haggled for in Namche hangs on the wall, along with my trekking permit, a certificate of completion for my adventure, and two photos of me from Base Camp and Kala Patthar. The ceiling of my room is decorated with the large prayer flags I packed back from Nepal. These are tangible things, things I bought and carried home. The real treasure of the trip was finding out that sometimes you find yourself in the middle-of-nowhere, and sometimes, in the middle-of-nowhere, you find yourself.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Happy Easter: The Biannual Churchgoer Edition

Happy Easter friends; one of two holidays a year the church pews are full. Our sons are forced into ties. Our daughters' dresses are bought months in advance, and we can't forget those new white shoes. We have to give our best to the Lord! you'll hear mommas in their new pantyhose say, the same way you hear them urge on Christmas...except they'll show up in jeans every other Sunday of the year if they even venture to show up at all. Why?

He is Risen, indeed. 

Half of me is very thankful that this population shows up on these two holidays, as another group of people never shows up at all. Not to mention, these are the two holidays that represent the two of the most crucial events in Christianity; these are the two events that ultimately define the faith. If church-goers are going to pick and chose, these are the two Sundays to pick and chose.

But the other part of me is upset. Not with this population for only coming to church on select Sundays on which they'd feel guilty if they didn't attend, but instead with the church, for making this population feel this way.

This post has been written in my private journal a thousand times, marked as too controversial to share with the world. I don't really care anymore.

Why are so many people so concerned with giving God "their best" when they go to church? 

I asked myself that one Christmas as I plowed through 12 pairs of pantyhose searching for one without a run in the calf. I asked other people, too, and the only answer I ever heard was "It's a sign of respect." This I understand. This I understood prior to asking the question. I understand why we dress up and fix our hair and make sure we have on good makeup. But I don't understand why that's the priority.

Sometimes, when I walk through the doors of church, I am hurt. I am lost. I am angry. As so many are on Sundays. On every Sunday; yes, even Christmas and Easter. We often don't feel like celebrating our Savior because we feel so far removed from Him that we have nothing to celebrate. It's far more of an obligation than a celebration. We go to church because we are afraid those gossipy potluck church women will notice we aren't there, not because we are excited to connect with and worship our Lord.

And yet, our fellow church families seem far less concerned with helping and healing than "giving their best." These special holiday sermons are turned into a show. How can we make this Easter message different than the last one? We tell the same dang passage every year! So out come the bunny metaphors, the children's ministry Easter egg hunts (which you humbly volunteer for to avoid the generic sermon), and I even knew a church that would bring in a live nativity scene with a real camel each Christmas. After all, you've got to set yourself apart if you want these biannual church-goers to attend your sermon on Easter.

Don't get me wrong. I thought the live nativity was pretty impressive, and I'm a big fan of the children's Easter egg hunt. But if the church was a little more concerned with sharing the truths behind our faith, maybe these biannual church-goers would feel more inclined to come on regular Sundays. Maybe a relationship with God, and a relationship with other church-goers for that matter, would be more appealing if we were allowed to be real. If we were allowed to take off our mask.

We have become far too involved in worshiping church, and not involved enough in worshiping God.

"I hate going to church," my friend told me once, "I have to get all dressed up to go somewhere boring and fake. If I wanted to do that, I'd just go on a blind date!"

My heart wanted to laugh and break all at the same time. The truth is, we are involved in enough situations like these. School and work can get pretty boring. The people around us are so fake. And then there's church; what is supposed to be the most loving and welcoming community in the world, is instead conforming to what the rest of society already is in a failed attempt at getting more people through the door.

We don't need any more Broadway shows. We don't need anything else we feel we have to sign up to volunteer for, we don't need anything else we feel obligated to donate money to, and we don't need another place where we are expected to have it all together and are judged if we don't. We need truth. We need love. And we need God. Fast, and more than ever. My heart cracks when I open Facebook. My mouth gapes open when I watch the news. The world is about to explode in ways that are anything but optimistic and hopeful. If we simply did our job: if we loved people, accepted people, and shared that love and acceptance without treating people like a charity project, we'd have more volunteers. We'd have more offerings. And we'd have more attendance. Not just on Easter, but every Sunday. Because people would be committed to each other, and also committed to God.

So today, my Easter outfit is brought to you by The Limited; the same generic place I buy all my professional attire. No ruffled skirts, no pastel sweaters, and no designer white heels. Not this year. Just a girl who is bringing herself, as she is, broken and beautiful, to the cross.

I hope this Easter you are reminded why that holy human everyone talks about died on the cross for you. Because he didn't just die for you, he came back to life for you. He saved you. He loves you. Don't get so caught up dyeing eggs and eating chocolate that you forget how much He loves you, even without your pantyhose on.

Because that's what today is really about. Not egg hunts and decorated baskets and creepy kodak bunnies at the mall food court. It's about love, and miracles, and a God who thought you were worthy of both.

Happy Easter, beautiful. He is Risen, indeed.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

7 Ways Winterguard Made Me A Better Teacher

Hey there, dearest reader. It's been a long time. I must say...student teaching full time and spinning my last season of winterguard has not left much time for blogging. Add on teacher certification exams, graduation announcements, and planning for a move to Nashville, TN, and I am running myself to absolute exhaustion.

But even though blogging was the thing I had to forfeit, I don't regret a single bit of it. 

Student teaching is winding down; it's already more than half over. My teacher certification prep is almost all submitted, my graduation plans are in the works, and some boxes are already packed and ready for Nashville. But most important to this post specifically, my winterguard performance career has come to an end. Not just the end of a season, but the end. The real end. Like, forever. 

It's a strange feeling: to know that something that has impacted my life in so many ways for over ten years is over. I'm literally too old to do it anymore. Time to grow up and move on. Yikes. Suddenly, what had become an outlet for me for over half my life... what had provided me exercise when I always chose the large fries instead of a trip to the gym and what gave me a means of expression when it felt as though I had nowhere else to go... was just over. The hour glass was glued to the table, and all the sand finally fell to the bottom. There is no starting it over. 

All that was left to do was find a way to cope. Find something to fill the void. Find something to replace the therapeutic art form I had come to know. It was important that I find a way to channel that love toward other passions. 

Which is exactly what I did. I channeled it to teaching. 

I plan more. I research more. I get more and more creative. I use my time to think more and more about my kids: what they like; what they need. And slowly but surely, I got better. More comfortable. More confident. My points of constructive criticism were diminishing. Compliments were increasing. And I began to relax, which made me even better. 

So yeah. Guard kept me healthy. It made me stronger. More empathetic. It taught me focus. It taught me how to harness anxiety. It gave me an outlet for expression, and a family brought together in a bond almost as strong as blood. It gave me humility, determination, and confidence. It made me a better woman. It made me a better person. 

And it made me a better teacher. 




Performance. 
I used to dread public speaking. The night before a presentation, I would hardly eat a thing. I would stay awake all night worrying. Anxiety plagued me. Even during the speech itself, I would shake and stutter my way through it. 

Now I'm in front of kids all day, every day. Not just speaking, but teaching! I have one of the most important jobs in the world. And yes, I still get nervous when I am being observed. But it doesn't paralyze me, and I certainly have no problems eating or sleeping due to anxiety anymore. 


Recovery. 
Stuff happens. It just does. Tardies. Nose-bleeds. Other teachers coming in to work one-on-one with kids and the librarian interrupting your lesson every Friday at 12:50 because you forgot your class's checkout time for the fifth week in a row. Accept the info, assess the situation, and change the plan. Quickly. Welcome to winterguard, friends! That's called recovery, and it's a skill all teachers need in order to be successful. 


Multi-Tasking. 
I was the worst at this when I started winterguard. What?! You want me to dance and spin and count and watch and smile? All while keeping my toes pointed? I don't think so. That's...impossible! Right?Well...not exactly. It's just something that took a lot of practice. 

When I entered a classroom, I had to relearn it all over again. Plan and teach and manage and assess... all at the same time? Once again, I was the worst at it and I needed some major practice. But I'm getting the hang of it, just as guard taught me to do.


Teamwork.
It's not just up to you to teach your young students how to work as a team. You must work as a team as well, with your grade level team, the specials teachers, the nurses, the para's, the secretary, the principal, and even sometimes along with administration. After all, you are there with the same staff for eight hours every day. The longer you are present in a school, the more you become part of that close-knit community; just as you become part of a guard community after spending four hour rehearsals with your team. Suddenly, your teammates and co-workers are more than just teammates and co-workers. They are your family. 


Confidence. 
My guard instructor never allowed us to say we were confused. I used to roll my eyes. There were times when I was confused, and I needed some extra help. 

Then I started coaching my own colorguard, and I found my own pet-peeve. The phrase "I can't" haunted me as I went to sleep each night. I'd cringe when it left my high-school performer's mouths. Nothing frustrated me more because they could do it, they just needed more help, and instead of asking for that help, they were using "I can't" as their valid excuse for failure. 

I suddenly realized that saying, "I'm confused," was a more mature way of saying "I can't." It didn't ask a single question to gain new information. It didn't provide a plan to work toward progress. It was simply a statement to validate why things weren't going as well as they should. 

I eliminated the phrase "I can't" from my high schoolers vocabulary. Throughout the year, they would receive extra points for focus, extra practice, counting, performance awards, etc. as positive reinforcement, but every time I heard a student say "I can't" I would take away points from their end-of-season reward. Suddenly they were saying things like, "I need more help on this toss," and "Can you break that down for us again?" Now those were questions I could work with. Those statements helped the process while keeping confidence intact. 

Us educators like to call it "growth mindset." Guard definitely teaches how to value a final product, but it teaches how to value the process more. Focusing on growth and progress rather than always looking toward the final, perfect goal helps enhance focus, boost confidence, and ultimately makes learning new material interesting, useful, and fun! If a performer/student is more focused on how far they've come rather than how far they have left to go, they are more likely to stay intrinsically motivated to keep going further. Learning this early as a performer has helped me value this in the classroom regarding my students' progress and my own progress as a teacher. It also helps me to instill this confident mindset in my kiddos early in life as well. Questions are not bad! In fact, they are preferred, as they stem from curiosity; a truly lost concept in today's society. 


Constructive Criticism. 
In any performance art (or any sport for that matter) critiques come flying at you right and left, and you are so dedicated to being a fabulous performer/athlete that it's hard to keep yourself from taking things personally. I eventually learned to nod and take the criticism. Then I learned how to accept it, try it, and use it. Soon, I was using critiques as fuel and running with it. I even found myself asking for extra help. 

In every aspect of life, when someone gives you feedback, it is a chance to make yourself even better. This is true in performance and it is also true in teaching, as teaching is an art that is never completely mastered. Never pass up an opportunity to make yourself the best you can be. 


Constant Reflection. 
Practice makes perfect.

Sometimes no one's present to give you the constructive criticism you need. In these cases, you have to give it to yourself. In guard, you must constantly assess yourself. With each and every run, find one thing you can make better. Make mental notes in performance. Recap performance videos. Stay aware of what the show ultimately needs and make sure you are doing your part. 

The same is true with teaching. Make mental notes through your lessons. Recap your lesson plans. Write reflections if you have to. Stay aware of what your students ultimately need, and make sure you are doing your part. 

I've said it once and I'll say it again... Teaching is an art that is never truly mastered, and nothing quite beats experience. 


You could talk about guard technique all day long, but until you have picked up a flag and practiced, you might as well have done next to nothing. Likewise, you can sit four years in a lecture hall talking about lesson planning and classroom management and still learn more in your first two weeks of student teaching than you have your entire college education. And allow me to be blunt: Those first few weeks of student teaching were rough. Experience was a brutal teacher. But I learned. Quickly and thoroughly. 

I learned.

Because of winterguard, I am a better person. Even though my performance career is over, I will take away far more from the activity than simply good memories. I have gained a confidence I never imagined and skills that I never thought I would need as much as I do in my profession. Winterguard is wonderful training for a lot of things, but it is the perfect training for future teachers.


And to all the performers out there who are still performing... I know the work is hard. I know the hours are endless. I know how much you complain. Trust me, I've been there. But when it is over, you will miss it more than you ever thought you would. So don't waste a single moment you have to shine. It's gone in the blink of an eye.