A Post of Compassion

February 19, 2015

I joined the #1000Speaks group over a month ago, but naturally I put off writing the post until the week it was due.  I didn’t even know what I was going to write until last night.  Hence, this is one of the churchiest posts you’ll probably ever read on this blog.  But it’s what came up, and thus it is what I will post.  This is where the compassion entered.

 

One perhaps does not at first associate Ash Wednesday and Lent with compassion.

No, one generally conceives of dark purple and black, sooty ashes, penitence, kneeling, self-denial.  These do not immediately conjure up notions of compassion, kindness, and non-judgment.

It feels more like the dark season of judg-y repentance before the compassion.

I arrived at a dark and lightly chilled Ash Wednesday service last night in some trepidation.  I had sat out the previous year’s Lent—entirely.  I didn’t even make it to an Ash Wednesday service, much less do anything else for Lent.  Good Friday and Easter?  Blips on the calendar.  It had been a hard year, and I didn’t have the energy.

But that didn’t mean I felt no guilt.  Or not guilt, exactly—I knew I was doing the best I could do at the time—but I felt a sense of responsibility, or, at the least, the idea that God probably thought less of me for not joining in and prioritizing my spiritual life.

I attend a fairly traditional liturgical church that has not changed the service language in favor of gender inclusiveness and that does not shy away from talk about sinfulness and wretchedness.  So I went to the Ash Wednesday service this week expecting fire and brimstone and judgment, or at least a focus on sin and doom.

What I found instead was language like this:

The purpose of the fast is to help us detach from the thing and attach to God. And you will fail at your disciplines, and it’s okay. It’s about your growth.

And hymns like this:

Thou hast mercy upon all things, O Lord,

and hatest nothing that thou has created,

and winkest at men’s iniquities because they should amend,

and sparest all men, for they are thine,

O Lord, thou lover of men’s souls

And prayers like this:

Thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.

And instead of walking away feeling wretched and ee-vill, bearing down under my own weighty sin…I felt encouraged; I felt loved; I felt indulged, even.

And all that with a black ashen cross inscribed on my forehead.  And it didn’t feel like a brand of doom.  Instead, it felt like a mark of love.

This Lent, I have added a discipline that is not ascetic in the least—I will practice self-compassion so that I can practice compassion with others, and so that I can learn to receive the compassion God practices toward me.

ash cross

This post was written in conjunction with the 1000 Voices of Compassion effort.  #1000Speak
 http://1000speak.wordpress.com/ 
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Ending the Idea Famine #5

This is a continuation of a blog post about feeling idea-less and employing strategies to unstick myself.

5.  CREATE A SPACE PROTECTION AGENCY.

Protecting your creative space, the idea nursery, from vultures and violators and vacuum cleaners.  I forgot for a while that we are all creative people—it’s how we are made; we all have ideas.  But it’s been a challenging year, both professionally and personally.  And negative and bitter people at work have had the effect of hosing down my thoughtful spot with cortisol.  And disappointment, negative self-talk, and skepticism about the value of my ideas has essentially kicked my tiny toddling idea puppies back under the sofa.  And someone keeps vacuuming up all my legos. 

No more!  It’s time for Mama Bear to spring into action, fangs bared, claws unsheathed—not to injure or maim, but just to scare the interlopers off.  I must protect my cubs, from predators both internal and external.  I may even need to protect them from myself sometimes, from the voices I indulge or forget to shush.  It could just be possible that I have decent ideas and I’m devaluing them all on my own. 

With these mixed metaphors practices, I hope to find my idea maker, my muse mojo again.  But regardless, I will continue to show up at the page every day, even if it’s just for more self-conscious schmotz.  I want to already be there when the lightning strikes.

*The vacuum idea came from Tonia Hurst.  The puppies under the sofa idea came from Diana Glyer.

2013-08-06-Vacuuming legos robbie and bobby

Ending the Idea Famine #4

This is a continuation of a blog post about feeling idea-less and employing strategies to unstick myself.  

4.  PRACTICE BRAINSTORMING LIFE.

An additional exercise, which I’ve been inspired to by watching my friend Tonia, who is a fount of ideas.  It sounds simple, but like anything, it comes naturally to some and it takes conscious practice for others of us. 

The exercise is to take the moment I’m in, or the day I’ve had, and ask myself,

  • “What kinds of stories could I tell out of this?”
  • Or “How could I turn this into an essay or article or post?”
  • Or “What does this remind me of or connect to?”

It’s basically a brainstorming exercise, the kind I ask my students to do…but somehow forget to do for myself.  I have every faith that it works for my students, so why don’t I apply that faith to my own situation?  The time to apply is now. 

Last Thursday, I had a freaking nutso-busy day.  I had to run a learning walk with teachers from two schools, and then I had to run a live discussion for my online English class that I teach.  It ended up being a good day overall…but I was sucked dry.

However, I was mindful of trying out this intentional brainstorming activity, and here’s what I came up with in fairly short order:

  1. The difference between a sport coat and a suit coat (I actually didn’t know that the same coat could be both)
  1. Instructing low socio-economic students in the art of dressing for business/interviews.
  1. Direct instruction vs. collaboration. Just because the student isn’t doing visible demonstration of thinking right this second doesn’t mean he’s not thinking and learning.  Yes, the proof will be in the demonstration, tomorrow during their job interviews—higher stakes can be excellent motivators—but sometimes students need to ingest some modeling.  Write about the email I got and my response and then our observation.
  1. Assumptions are killers. Assumptions about what our kids know.  Assumptions about what they can’t do.  Assumptions about our knowledge and understanding of their world.  We need to ask rather than assume. This came up a number of times in today’s learning walk conversation.
  1. Learning from each other as professionals—the learning walk process. Trust the process.  What it looks like for us.  Write a description of our learning walks and the philosophy underpinning then.  Could be an article for an education magazine.
  1. Improving one’s practice (regardless of what that practice is)—requires self-reflection and introspection, and a willingness to admit fault and own failure, and an acknowledgement that it is only after the failure that the learning and growth begin (Lewis Thomas)
  1. Writing modes idea generation tool—use it myself. Write the methods and process and an example taken all the way through.
  1. Should I do a teacher blog? I’m not the most stellar teacher.  I’m not National Board Certified.  I’m not Teacher of the Year.  I’m not S____ [a colleague].  But I am an inquirer and a thinker.  And I do wish to practice these things mindfully and intentionally in my own classroom. And I do see the results of their practice, even at the low levels of implementation that I employ.  Write about teacher fear and teacher attempts.
  1. Even people who don’t go to school and who grow up in abuse can become amazing, educated teachers and humans. Write a character study or an interview of J__ [a colleague].

In terms of idea generation, any of these could generate a blogpost or an article or essay.  Not bad work for a few minutes’ time.  Hmm…maybe there’s something to this brainstorming thing I’ve been advocating to my students all these years.  Haha!

brainstorm

Ending the Idea Famine #3

This is a continuation of a blog post about feeling idea-less and employing strategies to unstick myself.  

3.  GATHER LISTS FULL OF GRATITUDE.

Another practice, well-established as having far-reaching medicinal properties for the whole person, is the gratitude list, which I am trying to make more integral and habitual. 

Feeling down, depressed, or despairing? 

  • Break out pen and paper (or fingers on keyboard) (or thumbs on phone keys).
  • List out 5-10 things you’re thankful for right now. It doesn’t matter how small or grandiose they are. 

Sometimes it feels like you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel—all you can grab hold of are the smallest, most insignificant things.  (Example:  “Well, I am thankful that I didn’t die of a heart attack in my sleep last night.”  You get the picture.)  Sometimes it’s a stretch to come up with even the third one…but they have a way of manifesting themselves once you get the ball rolling, once you demonstrate yourself to be willing to look for the good.  Don’t believe me?  Give it a whirl and prove me wrong. 

How does this help with idea generation?  Well, for one, it puts me in a better mindframe to be open to receiving ideas that may arise, or that may already be there right in front of me for the noticing.  For two, many of those things I’m grateful for are potentially worth writing about…if I have the eyes to see.

I was recently struck by how my gratitude practice has changed me.  A friend texted me one morning a couple of weeks ago and said, “How are you? Anything good?”  I was in stress-and-survival mode that day, but…my habit born of this practice kicked in instantly–I started listing a litany of good things great and mundane, and hit her back with twelve things almost immediately.

She responded, “Wow!!!  I’m speechless!  Thank you!”  Her question had had a beneficial effect on both of us.  I had not been focusing the positive, by any means, but having to answer her meant I shifted my thinking.  And my list helped her shift her focus from anxiety-causing things back to the good in her day.

This practice may not help me so much with what to write as it does make it possible for me to write.  It makes me receptive ground for the seeds of ideas that present themselves unobtrusively every day.

There is research to support this idea.  In his book Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make  You Happier, psychologist Robert A. Emmons notes,

“Our brains are wired to prevent the emotional confusion that would result from the simultaneous activation of opposite emotional states.  The parts of the that are active when positive emotions are experienced are not the the parts of the brain that are active when the person feels depressed or anxious, and vice versa.  Rather, each type of emotion is controlled by different hemispheres — the left prefrontal region is more active in happiness, whereas the right prefrontal region is more active during negative emotions.”

Clearly my brain is happy to help me when I’m willing to help it, and gratitude practice is simple enough medicine.

thank you

Ending the Idea Famine #2

This is a continuation of a blog post about feeling idea-less and employing strategies to unstick myself.  

2.  SPEND TIME IN THE GREAT OUT-OF-DOORS.

Getting outside and walking around and noticing things.  I’m a pretty-place person, and I really do hate enforced city/suburb living, but there I’ve lived since I was 13; thus, I have developed a long-standing practice of looking for the beauty, wherever I happen to be.  What I notice can often become fodder for reflection and writing.

Not to mention that going outside can provide fresh air and vitamin D and eye fatigue prevention (look up the 20-20-20 rule), and walking around constitutes movement which means not-sitting; and since sitting is now known to be deadly, and one does not tend to have many writing ideas while dead, getting out and walking around sounds like a pretty positive idea-move.

Since I used a birthday gift card to buy myself a FitBit, I find I’m more conscious about how much movement I’m doing in a given day.  Often I’ll take my conference period to step outside and walk under the sun or clouds.  If I then walk my dog in the evening, even just around the block, I’ll more often than not make my 10,000 steps a day, which is good start against the sedentariness that kills.

The beauty I notice while out there is sometimes captured in bits and bytes on my iPhone camera, and sometimes just in gray matter in my brain…and I find it sometimes becomes a poem or a reflection.  I think of it as my Mary Oliver practice–noticing natural phenomena, then reflecting and connecting.  There’s some truth to St. Augustine’s assertion, “Solvitur ambulando” — ‘in walking it is solved.’

Just yesterday I was driving during a lull in a storm and was met with this glorious sight.

IMG_5981

And I got to thinking about the rainbow and its physical explanation (water through sunlight, prism effect, etc.) and its mythic/symbolic meaning (promise of God, post-flood, never to destroy the earth again on that scale), and it led me to a conversation my protagonist may have with another character about the rightness or wrongness of imbuing the physical world with significance beyond mere biology.

Ending the Idea Famine #1

idea lightbulb no

Ever had those days…or weeks…or months…when it’s as though every idea has been sucked out of your brain by a giant vacuum?

I’m having a season.

A lame season.

Even this post—my idea is to write about not having ideas.  Lame.  Could it be more boring?

I think lots of things.  I notice lots of things.  But when it comes to sitting down in front of the blank screen and its blinking cursor, everything seems so stupid and utterly boring to any prospective audience.

And so I’ve mostly been freewriting, and journaling, with the occasional snippet of poetry, and the essay I keep putting off finishing for reasons unknown.

I have written every day this year so far, a minimum of 500 words per day since January 1st.  I actually started this quest last year, 2014, but my mind was wired to “try it” and “see if I could do it.”  This year my mind is wired to “do it” because not writing today is not an option. 

I’ve learned that there’s a difference when one is actually committed to doing, not just to trying.

While most of my January writing manifested as unpublishable stream-of-consciousness schmotz, I showed up, and words showed up, too.  And now that the muse knows I’m serious (for real this time), she may begin to show up, as well.

To help her along, I’ve decided that for February, in addition to writing every day, I will make an effort to be a little more focused and less rambling in my writing.  That is, I will attempt to have a topic or a question or…something for each 500-word jaunt.

And I may fail at it, but the intention is there, and I think the intention will eventually be rewarded, as it so often is when combined with consistent action.

I’m not making vows around blog posting frequency or anything like that.  Not now.  But I am working on the kinds of enrichment and activity that will lead to idea generation again.

Thus, I will:

  1. READ.  THEN READ.  AND ALSO READ.

Like, books.  I am a voracious reader.  Like, starving voracious.  And I’m an English teacher.  My classroom library is enormous.  I believe in reading.  I am a READER.  And yet I haven’t read and finished but about one or two full novels in the past entire year. 

What?  I know!  I don’t know what happened to me.  If I interrogate it, I recall (a) feeling guilty for doing anything that wasn’t school or writing and (b) not allowing myself to start a good novel because, once I’m in, the rest of the world doesn’t exist until I’m finished, and my sleep suffers because “just one more chapter” and…you get the picture.  But that guilt and self-curtailment are over.  The reader’s back!

 As Stephen King has famously said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

So I’m reading.  I’ve been “reading” audio books.  I finally took the plunge and gave myself an Audible.com membership.  I love listening while I’m commuting (when I don’t need to be silent and think) and especially when I’m on a solo road trip.  I’ve been listening to Essentialism (by Greg McKeown) and Susie Bright’s memoir, and I had to listen to 1984 (a reread) for a class I was teaching.

I’m also reading Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield (she of The Thirteenth Tale fame–also a great book), on tangible paper.  And I am reminded of how glorious it is to lose oneself in a great character, in suspense, in tragedy, in a setting’s exquisite beauty.  And almost I want to go back to my novel and try writing a scene…

 

(I will post #2-#5 throughout the week, mostly because this post is already long, and because I want to try them out genuinely and not just talk about trying them.)

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My 500 Words–End of Year Experience (A Bloghop Post)

My 500 Words First Year

I joined the My 500 Words group (link 1, link 2) almost as soon as I heard about it. I was sitting in a dining room in Prescott, Arizona—an uncomfortable dining room, a dining room of questionable welcome.  I didn’t know if I would find welcome in My 500 Words, but I was excited about the challenge.  Jeff Goins added me right away (thank you, Jeff).

One other friend, Tonia—a two-months friend but already close as a sister—joined up with me.   Over the course of this year, her encouragement and leadership and example of going from dipping her toe in the water to full, open hospitality and engagement have taught me much.

I met other friends here—true friends, not just Facebook “friends”—along the way.  I have traveled to other cities and states and countries to meet some of them.  I have derived a broader, deeper writer network through this group.  I have watched people in every state of writing development face their demons and wrestle with themselves in the dark.

I wrestled, too…with myself, with the angel on the riverbank.

I didn’t write every day.  In fact, I didn’t even write every day for the initial 31-day challenge.  I wrote more than I had written before.  But not every day.

I questioned my own abilities, my commitment.  These My 500 folks rallied behind me.  It was a mutual admiration society, a mutual encouragement society.

I failed at My 500 words.  But I also won…won great riches, in fact—lasting riches.  For “two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.”  (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10)

And I’ll do even better this next year.  That’s a fact.

 

Bloghop:  Some of the fabulous My 500 co-pilgrims may have something to say on the matter…

Linze Brandon at Butterfly on a Broomstick
Vanessa Wright at Humouring the dark
Stella Myers at Stella’s Starshine
Amy Bovaird‪ at Amy’s Adventures
Crystal Thieringer at Muse and Meander
‪Carryl A Robinson‪ at Echoes from the Cave
Becky Williams Waters at A Novel Creation
Laura Hile at For the Love of Storytelling
Tonia Hurst at The Vast and Inscrutable Imponderabilities of Life

May 2015 kick your ass in all of the very best and most wonderful ways!

Follow-up to Asking

In her recent talk in Santa Barbara, Anne Lamott repeated her oft-stated advice:  “Write what you’d love to come upon.

I love this.

I also am frustrated by this.  If what I would love to come upon is answers and all I have is questions, how can I follow her advice?

I guess I’ll just write pieces that ask the questions.

 

Asking the Way

Ever find those poems that just so strongly resonate with you and your approach to life?  This is one of those for me.

I am told I ask many questions.  It is true; I do.  It is how I make sense of the world.

 

Asking the Way

by Ko Un, translated by Suji Kwock Kim and Sunja Kim Kwock

You fools who ask what god is
should ask what life is instead.
Find a port where lemon trees bloom.
Ask about places to drink in the port.
Ask about the drinkers.
Ask about the lemon trees.
Ask and ask until nothing’s left to ask.

 

[I have my friend over at What Now to thank for posting this poem from the most recent issue of Poetry magazine.]

 

“By now I know the answer’s always in the question.”  –Emily Ann Saliers

Albert_Einstein_passionately curious

November 15, 2014 Tiny Gifts

On Saturday…

I slept in (blissful).

I read most of a magazine (Southern Living, Christmas issue–delicious)…with the promise of a Pat Conroy essay still to be read.

I got a message on Facebook asking me if I was leaving soon (grateful for that message because I had forgotten the event was as early as it was).

Met up with Carolyn, fellow writer and friend (always uplifting)…

Carolyn and I at Beachside Cafe

…and saw Anne Lamott speak and read (always a gift!).

Anne waits to speak     Anne Speaks 1

Anne Speaks 2     Anne sips water

 

Signed Anne Lamott book

 

And now I have an awesome book to read.  Yay!