State College Magazine

‘Wherever You Go, You Take Yourself With You’

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I get lost when I read. Until something grips me — a word, a phrase, a paragraph pinches a nerve, and I re-read again and again. When John Steinbeck crafts his characters in the space of a page; when Elizabeth Strout’s dialogue rings too true to be fiction; when Neil Gaiman builds his magical worlds of possibility. Years ago, I was buried in Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book when one of his character’s wise words woke me from my reading zone: “Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”

I think about that quote often. When I wonder what it would be like to move to Colorado and take on a new job. When I imagine a year abroad teaching in a new environment. The possibilities are intriguing, and because I’m a dreamer, I fall deep into the myriad of possibilities. But, then I remember Gaiman’s words, and I realize that — no matter where I’d go — I’d likely establish similar routines that I practice here at home. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.

I’ve been teaching long enough to know that real change happens when we are nudged into discomfort. I see it when a student who comes in thinking they hate poetry and leaves with a new perspective and appreciation for the art form. I see it when an eighth-grader walks in claiming they are not a writer and walks out understanding that they wield the power to make change through the written word. Personally, I might dream about new teaching techniques, tackling new curriculum and being a more courageous teacher, but unless I get out of my routine, I am likely to stagnate. I think the same is true for personal growth in general. In my personal and family life, if I continue with the same routines day in and day out, what hope is there for discovery and change?

I do not believe that I need to leave my job or move to a new state in order to grow; rather, it’s making small moves that lead to opportunities we didn’t see ourselves pursuing. Recently, I signed up for my first trail race. I’ve long been a runner, but I always participated in the same road races and jogged the same courses each Saturday. I never thought I’d enjoy running through mud, trees and streams. The trail race was hard. Not just because the mud was thick and the hills steep; I had to use my body in new ways, adjust my pace according to the landscape, and be wary of roots and rocks. Also, I got to run through icy, waist-deep water — and to be honest it was invigorating. While I was running, I questioned my decision and felt a bit lost and frustrated, but as soon as I crossed the finish line, my first thought was, I would like to do this again.

For the past few years, I’ve gotten away for a long weekend by myself. I don’t plan much, other than to write and read in an out-of-state location. To be honest, I always feel a bit guilty about it. When my children ask why I’m going, I tell them it’s a personal writing retreat. They cock their heads with a look that says can’t you just do that here? I try to explain that I find it rejuvenating, but I don’t think they get it. While I’m away, I still go for my early morning runs, eat bagels and write in bursts. I walk to a bookstore, people watch and go to bed early. I’m taking myself with me, but I’m also more aware of myself, my habits, routines and it gives me a chance to examine them, to turn them over in my mind and think about what might happen if I ran through the woods instead of on the streets. Each time I return from the trip, I come back a bit better — ready to listen more intently, ready to be more helpful, ready to be present.

There can be inspiration in newness. And it’s in these new adventures (however small) that we find invitations to hop off the treadmill. No doubt, for many of us there is comfort in routine. It makes us feel safe and protected. But it also protects us from possibilities and growth. From understanding why your uncle loves birdwatching, why your neighbor’s child flies remote-control airplanes, why your daughter writes poetry. If we want answers to these questions, we must take purposeful steps to break our routine and get a bit uncomfortable. And while all of this will promote personal growth, it will also help us become more empathetic family members.

So, though I know that wherever I go, I will take myself with me, I’m hopeful that by next year, I will be a slightly different person than I am now.

With a sports-obsessed 17-year-old son, a spirited 16-year-old daughter and a goldendoodle that looks like a muppet, teacher David Rockower has a lot to write about.

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