Blank Days and the Bulletin Board

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

Mary Oliver, from “Starlings in Winter”

This is the day which the Lord has made;
Let’s rejoice and be glad in it.

Psalm 118:24

If I asked you for reasons you wouldn’t like being a teacher, I’d imagine few of you—even those who actually are teachers, right this minute—would have much trouble coming up with a list. These days, the list might be long, might include the daily calculations teachers are making, weighing their physical safety against students’ wellbeing, trying their hardest to do a good job in impossible circumstances. I haven’t been a teacher for a few years, so my list wouldn’t include those circumstances, but for the decade or so that I was Ms. Dahlstrom, I was grieved by the astronomical expectations our society places on teachers—to be social workers, counselors, mentors and coaches as well as conveyors of subject matter—in return for a general skepticism that these educators are actually earning their meager, tax-funded wages. That, and also bulletin boards.

As a high school English teacher, I could have had amazing bulletin boards. I would catch glimpses of these displays in the library, or in elementary or occasionally science classrooms, and for an instant I would be inspired. I could do this, I’d think, display banned books or a dotted-line trajectory of Odysseus’ journey or a character map of Twelfth Night. And then I’d return to a stack of 150 ninth-grade journals to grade, finish editing the school newspaper, email parents, sweep the floor and it was already dark. Between going home and the bulletin board, I almost always chose going home.

All of this is a bit of a preface to the admission that a few years ago, in a fit of nostalgia for teaching and weird stay-at-home-mom energy, I hung up a bulletin board in my kitchen, and turned it into a calendar. You might imagine that I mean I hung a calendar on a bulletin board, but no. This calendar is about two by three feet: massive. It is divided with ribbon into squares, and has little numbers I can move around each month. It was really nice, this calendar, and the original vision was a sound one. I wanted a huge calendar in the kitchen, where we could write our dates and appointments for the month on little Post-It notes, could easily cross-reference plans and see when busier and lighter weeks were coming up. The big calendar was a place to put things that we were looking forward to, like playdates, and things that we had to do, whether we were looking forward to them or not, like dentist appointments.

For a few months, I posted our plans on the kitchen wall dutifully, moving the little numbers each month and forecasting all the places we had to and wanted to go. It worked fine, a huge calendar to shout down the creeping fear I’d had, since I ceased to have a job that I went to every day, that I wasn’t doing enough. No longer busy by any definition, I could still point to the big calendar. Ballet class. Play dates. Girls’ night. That monthly meeting at church. See, I’m doing stuff.

The trouble was, I started the calendar in August 2019. September, October, November, December came and went, with their monthly and biweekly commitments, their birthday and holiday plans.

Then came January and February, months in which we’d planned a few ballet classes, a few doctors’ appointments, a few playdates. There were weekend plans with friends, moved from the holiday weekend in January to the one a month later, then cancelled then too, both times because someone in my house was sick. I changed the calendar to March, a month that held no more ballet classes, but a handful of other meetings and some playdates. A wedding reception. My husband’s graduation from Basic Law Enforcement Academy.

There are so many ways to remember, and I’m sure that everyone has a different memory of how life changed, it seemed so quickly, in March 2020. It will all fade someday, but for now I’m remembering the Post-Its, little scraps of paper with friends’ names and MOPS meetings, peeling them off, everything in the last three weeks of the month, and recycling them. Then taking down the numbers, the days of the week, the month. I stared at the blank grid of ribbons for a few months, until the summer, but after a while I took them down too, and hung three straw hats and three cloth masks on the bulletin board, our summer 2020 gear.

Summer 2020

Like the rest of us, the bulletin board has been on a journey of transformation, these last two years. I didn’t bring the calendar back in 2021, though I did hang a smaller on the side of it, along with the greatest hits of preschool and Kindergarten art creations, cards from friends and the one phrase, “Be Brave,” that I’d written down in early 2020 as a daily reminder that courage takes many forms, even when I seldom leave my neighborhood. Then, a few weeks ago, for no reason that I cared to interrogate at the time, I printed out the numbers 1-31, the days of the week, and January, and brought back Big Calendar.

Only January 2022, it isn’t busier than March 2020, is it? I stared at my blank calendar for a week, a week in which the journal I’d ordered was being held hostage by UPS, a far too on-the-nose metaphor about this strange year that seems to have trouble beginning. Why, I asked myself, did I bother with this calendar, however nice I’ve made it look? Clearly, I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. Or maybe I am, but I can’t discern when. There is Normal Day I can put on the calendar to look forward to.

How badly I want to wrap all of this up with an epiphany or revelation, the turning point of this poem about schedules, at which I came to peace with the blankness spread out ahead of us. The truth is, after glaring at the calendar for a week, I wrote down what I could. The MOPS meetings, which had wavered between Zoom and in-person, depending on the weather and the case numbers in our county. A walk with a friend. A training at the end of the month, which was once a weekend retreat but now will happen online. An online baby shower, for a baby whose parents’ wedding was the last I attended, the first weekend of March 2020.

In the vast margins of this slow month, I put other things, beautiful things I’d saved from other iterations of the bulletin board. A watercolor done by an artist friend, and some paper snowflakes. A bit of needlepoint that arrived at just the right moment, a few birthdays ago. And, again, Be Brave.

Though I’d never have owned this at the time, I think the first calendar was as much a performance as anything. Back when people came over more often, I’d hoped to look busy and organized in a time when I felt neither. Now, two and a half years later, it’s an act of hope. I try to forgive—though I may never forget—the peeled-off Post-Its of other months and years. I’ll keep making plans and goals, and keep holding them loosely. Mostly I’ll remember how many blank calendar days have been grand ones, golden and unscheduled yet full to the brim, dripping with unexpected joy, laughter, and peace. Remember the shalom of those planless days, and look ahead to the unimagined goodness still to come, whether or not I have anything to write down ahead of time. Life isn’t good because of the plans I make for it, but because of the good God who makes each day. Let me rejoice, and be glad in them.

January 2022


One Comment Add yours

  1. Ahh, this is poignant and marvellous! How you’ve captured what I’m feeling and haven’t been able to express. At least you have young children. I occasionally wonder if we’re just going to sit here till we die!! Now how’s that for a morbid thought?? ☹ I HAVE enjoyed time to read – book club books, books recommended by colleagues, etc. And I NEED to be walking daily. No excuses this time of year!

    Was the artist friend Susie? I know she’s so fond of your family. 😊

    I do enjoy your writing. You challenge me personally and spiritually. And this is indeed the day the Lord has made.

    Loved the Christmas picture. Thanks so much. My New Year’s cards are going out this weekend hopefully or first thing Monday.

    Hugs to your family,

    Sent from Mail for Windows

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