My favorite college professor, Ted, had a simple routine. It began with a late arrival that led hastily but seamlessly to a greeting and an apology, the same each time. As he spoke, he scribbled on a half-sheet of paper, craning his arm as every lefty does. These notes were his lesson plan, and they never exceeded six bullet points. Often, they were even shorter. Of course, Ted has the privilege of being one of the smartest people around; after nearly a decade of environmental policy writing, including a thesis presented at a UN Summit, he burnt out. Always a poet, he wanted to strip the part of his life that strapped extra weight on his day-to-day routine, that made his poetry slump with bad posture. If his body of work was a skeleton, he hadn’t been able to schedule an appointment with the chiropractor in far too long. So he left that job that had taken him to Boston, India, and the UN, and he made his way to Iowa, and then St. Louis. As far as I could tell, his life became simpler. What he lost in bulk he gained in definition, as he focused his work to reflect the weight his skeleton could bear. The stories he shared in class had less to do with policy wars than with the trial of having too many Easter eggs leftover in his refrigerator to appease his toddler’s obsession with blue dye—dye that one morning stained his hands and made him 12 minutes late, instead of his customary seven. These stories were the currency of his classes—literally, the workshop style writing classes meant we were graded on our stories. A good one might forgive arriving 45 minutes late, as I once did.
Ted never labeled his methodology for us, but at some point I began calling it the “Bare Bones Philosophy.” The frame of his classroom, and evidently of his life, was sparse, fitting, and functional: a lesson plan outlined well after class had begun; a return to the Midwest with his wife (also a writer) and their daughter; a profession of poetry, no longer hampered by policy. Everything he did, at least as far as I could see, was built upon this simplicity. It’s a simplicity I longed for then, and long for even more now that I’ve begun teaching.
Within my first week of teaching, I had to set myself a rule: no lesson planning after 10 pm. I’m a perfectionist by nature, which has led me to be a procrastinator by nature, too; whether or not I procrastinate, I will spend every moment until the deadline perfecting the product, and in that process of perfection, I often scrap completely what I started with. All to say, I finish my work late. I also start my work late, in an effort to keep the process relatively simple. It worked in college to the point that I’d always be up until 3:00 am, and occasionally until 4:00. But as I’ve quickly learned at Rockhurst High School (Kansas City, MO), it’s not uncommon to rise before 6:00 am for practice. 3:00 am is irresponsible. And so, I made myself stop working late into the night. Less working into the night means fewer chances to perfect each slide for each lesson plan. The responsible move has become a lesson plan with a strong base and workable foundation. If I lay it well, if I establish a good skeleton, the lesson will build itself.
I can write these ideas down on paper all I want and think they’ll be easy. But the truth is, simplicity does not come naturally to me. In fact, I’m quite afraid of it. It diverges from my natural tendency to analyze every thought I have and every thing I do. To just be—it’s an incoherent demand for me. Rather than beginning with the bones paying attention to their own strength, I tend to start with a winter wardrobe, stripping away each piece only when the heat demands it. In designing my first classes, I had every intention to start small, to keep it simple. Yet that never happened. My slideshows were never complete. They could always use more detail. But in the classroom, I didn’t have time to think about those small details. There’s a big picture to address: in 67 class days, I have to cover the Old Testament. It’s tough to even begin. The temptation is to address the whole canon, to discuss every character, to reconcile every contradiction. But that’s just impossible. No skeleton can bear that weight on its bones.
ASC is a year of simple living and intentionality. Yet, it’s also dedicated to the Yes, which I find quite familiar. So far, the balance between those dedications is as delicate as my own bones apparently are (I type this blog still wearing a splint on my broken right arm). I’ve asked myself lately what I feel called to say Yes to. Of my many interests, which ones are being called at Rockhurst this year? Do I want to write environmental policy for the UN? Or do I want to be a poet? Why not both? And, in the midst of all this activity, how do I balance that time necessary for community? Intentionality is a start, but that’s a bit too vague. What do I need to be intentional about? How many things can I be intentional about?
My routine hasn’t closed its growth plates yet. Still, I managed to dress the skeleton of that routine a bit ahead of schedule. However, the bones have no business being anything but bare for now. And as I go forward, the hope is that simplicity becomes the norm, the routine. I have faith that it will; to be honest, it already is heading that way, 28 days in. Without that simplicity, I worry I’ll clutter my lesson plans, lose my vigor, get irritated instead of elevated by leftover Easter eggs from my community mates. It will be an intentional effort, and it begins for me with the bones: the people who matter to me, the work that excites me, the places that comfort me. To dig in, to uncover; that should be the goal. Inside, I hope to find a stillness, simply wrapped in bare bones.