Robin Song

The female robin lit on the top of the chain link fence that separates my patio from the parking lot.  The bouquet of grass clutched in her beak made it obvious that she was constructing a nest. She sat on the fence for some minutes as Lauren and I stood on the nearby patio chatting. We remarked on the grass the bird was carrying and wondered why she wasn’t moving on.  Truthfully, she looked as though she was feigning nonchalance.

 “Who me? Just hanging out here on this fence. Grass? What grass? Oh this grass in my beak? Oh that’s nothing , really…”

Then it came to me—she was building her nest in the small tree beside the patio– the one by Lauren’s window that is not really a tree so much as a round bush with a bit of a trunk. The robin, I surmised, was being very careful not to signal the location of the nest to us by carrying her load of grass to its destination while we were watching.

She hopped down off the fence toward the parking lot side, away from the patio. I watched as she walked with stealth between the curb and the neighbour’s car bumper until she was positioned on the far side of the slender tree trunk from where I was standing. Lauren had gone back inside, and I moved to the far end of the patio and deliberately turned away. I glanced back just in time to catch a glimpse in my peripheral vision of the robin zipping up into the cover of the leafy branches. As soon as she could see I wasn’t watching she had made a dash for the nest.

Except of course I had seen her, and so had Lauren watching through the window—a vantage point no robin could be expected to account for. She couldn’t know that, despite her best efforts, she had failed to keep her secret safe.

On the other hand, she couldn’t know that we were never really any danger to her in the first place. We have no intention of harming her nest.  In fact, now that we know the nest is there, we can take measures to protect it– to ensure that when the cat joins us outside, we will keep her leash anchored in such a way that she can’t reach the tree.

nest
Last year’s real estate

Reflecting on the care with which the robin manoeuvered around the perceived danger to the security of her nest, I wondered how much effort I expend on guarding my own gates against threats that aren’t really threats at all. How often do I misjudge something as malevolent when in fact it is perfectly benign, or even potentially benevolent towards me? What secrets am I guarding that really don’t need to be secrets at all, because I the threat from which I am guarding them is not quite the threat I imagine?

I wanted to be able to tell the robin everything was ok. That she should carry on building her nest. That she would get no trouble from me. But she would not have understood, because I can’t speak to her in robin song.

And how often has the universe tried to tell me not to be afraid in a song I didn’t understand?

Freefall

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I’ve always felt that was a good principle to live by. Which is why, on my outing to the amusement park yesterday with my sister’s family, I decided it was time to try this ride for the first time:

tinkertown3

Did I say the first time? I also should have said the last.

OK I guess it wasn’t that bad. I understand the physics of it enough to know why one should be able to expect NOT to become airborne at any point. And I figured if my small niece and smaller nephew were managing not to be flung into orbit around the sun, the odds were good that I too would live to see another day.

There was, however, the added factor that said niece and nephew had decided we needed to sit in the very end. That would be the part that swings up the highest. Now I’m truly not scared of heights. What I am scared of is falling, and the sensation that one might fall. And, as I discovered when it was far too late to change my mind about the whole affair, when this particular ride is in full swing there is a moment when the centrifugal force that is holding one in place flirts with the competing gravitational force that is seducing you earthward, and you do actually rise ever so briefly from your seat and hover Wile-E-Coyote-style in mid air for a split second before swinging back down.

tinkertown2
Happy screaming people

I have long been mindful that my anxiety about falling has a lot to do with a much more generalized anxiety about relinquishing control. Lately I am consciously looking for opportunities to live by Eleanor Roosevelt’s words. Fortunately (unfortunately?) life affords no shortage of opportunities to do just that. Many of those opportunities are considerably less flamboyant than a ride on the Tinkertown Sea-Ray, but at the same time considerably more meaningful.

In my effort to do the thing that scares me, I have engaged in all manner of difficult conversations that had the same effect on my stomach as that moment when the Sea-Ray hovers at the top of its swing. I suspect that those risky conversations are actually more along the lines of what Roosevelt was really contemplating than the pendulum-pirate-ship-of-doom.

Which suits me fine, because it means that I need not feel obligated to get back on the Sea-Ray or any of its ilk!

Seeing the whole picture

Albert* was one of the old-timers who sat at the back of the room, moseying their way through high school on the extended plan. To be honest, I suspect that the unspoken consensus among my teacher colleagues was that Albert’s chances of graduating were pretty slim.

In a small Manitoba town in the mid 1980’s Albert’s outward appearance was guaranteed to evoke judgement.  He wore threadbare t-shirts with rock band logos, torn never-washed jeans, and long greasy black hair, perpetually falling in front of his eyes and draped across a complexion ravaged by adolescence and poor nutrition. I never knew whether he lived in town or commuted from the Reserve up the highway. I suspect that there was some degree of undiagnosed Fetal Alcohol Effect in Albert’s story. The teachers who attempted to teach him Math and English despaired over his erratic attendance. But I was the Art teacher, and Albert, I discovered, was an artist.

Albert’s attendance in art, while far from perfect, was somewhat more regular than his attendance in his academic courses. He sat in the back corner of the art room, head down, eyes hidden by his heavy black hair, deeply entranced by whatever project I had conjured up for the week.  Whatever the assignment, Albert produced something beyond my expectations.

In a big city school Albert might have had the option to rack up all manner of high school credits in a comprehensive arts program. But all I had to offer him was one credit per year of his high school career. And at the rate he was going he was going to run out of art options before he ran out of years.

The more I got to know Albert, the more I ached over the disconnect between his artistic talent and the way that everything else about school conspired to beat him down. I wished there was something more I could do provide him with some validation.

One day I had a brainwave. Remembering that there was a process to create a special project for credit, I proposed to Albert the idea of creating a mural. To my delight, he agreed.

And then the bureaucracy began. First the principal hemmed and hawed. He was not a man given to making decisions if he could possibly help it. I suspected that, had Albert been a more conventionally studious student, the answer might have come quicker. Eventually consent was given, on the condition that I consult with the School Division office regarding the acceptable kind of paint to use on the school walls. After another lengthy runaround, I was informed by a bemused Director of Facilities that ordinary latex paint would be just fine. For a location, we agreed on a boring segment of hallway that joined the two wings of the school.

All that was left was the matter of the mural composition. Fearing that I was going to have to go to battle to defend Albert’s artistic freedom, I asked him to draft a prototype on paper before starting. I waited nervously to see what Albert would come back with, scarcely able to imagine what he would propose. Given that his overall school experience had been less than uplifting, I envisioned something dark and angrily abstract.

Albert sought me out late one afternoon. “I’ve got my picture for the wall.” He unrolled a sheet of poster paper, and revealed, to my astonishment, an exquisite sketch of a unicorn, rearing up on its hind legs in front of a backdrop of lush green forest. I said all the right approving things, but all I could think was “where did that come from?!”

Albert toiled for weeks, painstakingly recreating his work as a mural that spanned roughly 8 feet of hallway. The result was stunning. The other teachers didn’t say much, but once in a while I would catch them looking with veiled astonishment and grudging respect at Albert’s creation. Whatever else they might have thought about Albert, we all saw a part of him we had never imagined was there whenever we passed through that hallway.

I only spent two years at that school, leaving for a position in the city before Albert graduated. I don’t know if he ever did. I have always wondered what became of him. I hope that he found something worthwhile to take him far away from that town. I went back myself a few years ago, and had occasion to walk through the halls of the school.

Albert’s mural had been painted over.

It broke my heart.

When I knew I wanted to write this story, I combed through my albums in search of the one photo I remember taking of the mural. I couldn’t find it.

And it broke my heart all over again.

paint-wall-lg_A2

 

*name has been changed.

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Daily Prompt: Does it ever make sense to judge a book by its cover — literally or metaphorically? Tell us about a time you did, and whether that was a good decision or not.

Create the path by walking on it

Daily Prompt wants to know, “Have you ever become obsessed with something? Tell us about something that captivates your attention like nothing else.”

You may have noticed I haven’t been posting much lately. I have been doing a bit of non-blog writing, but mostly I’ve just been super-busy with other things. Chiefly, I’ve got a lot of papers to grade for the two (what was I thinking?) courses I taught this term over and above my already busy day job. I should be doing that right now.

I don’t know if I would call it an obsession, but at this point in my life I am focused on finding ways to live more creatively. Teaching is, for me, a creative pursuit. Grading papers is not. My job affords opportunities for creativity, but it also comes with lots of barriers to creativity. Sometimes I think my biggest barrier to living a more creative life is me.

One of my greatest creative mentors is a woman I have never met, but who lives so vividly through her books that I feel as though I have. A few days ago I was having a sort of “crisis of faith”—as in I was seriously doubting my faith in my own creativity. I expressed it in this blog post. The very next day, as though the universe itself was responding to my shaken confidence, I picked up Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper from my nightstand and happened upon these words, written by Cameron in reflection upon a concert of Richard Rodgers’ lesser-known works:

All of us who make things worry whether or not what we make is “original.” Listening to the Rodgers evening proved this worry to be irrelevant. Clearly, Rodgers was the “origin” of all his work. The prism of his sensibility is what made it original. The same is true for all of us. We are the origin or our work. Our allowing work to move through us in the issue. As we suit up and show up each day at the page or easel or the camera, we have an “eye” that becomes the “I” present in all that we do. (pp. 57-58)

Julia Cameron is one of those rare beings who actually make a living being creative. She has published both fiction and non-fiction, and even composed opera. But Cameron’s greatest gift to the creative world has surely been her many books of gentle wisdom on how to unlock the creativity we all carry within us. Beginning with The Artist’s Way, and moving through multiple volumes of reflections and exercises that encourage the reader to dig deeper into the depths of his or her own creativity, Cameron has quite literally “written the book” on how to live a more creative life.

Mind you, she’s not alone. There are others whom I have found to be able guides in my quest to centre myself within my creativity. Twyla Tharp. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Stephen King. And others whose names escape me for the moment.

So many things escape me. So many times I have tried to take a run at living a more creative life, and before I know it all the things that have a tendency to squelch my efforts rush in and fill up all the spaces in my day, and in my mind. The truth is my willpower is not very powerful. I’m way better at starting projects than I am at finishing them.

But I’m not giving up.

There’s been a lot written about Disney’s new creation Frozen. For  me, the most powerful metaphor in this amazing film comes in the middle of Elsa’s iconic song “Let it go” where she essentially creates a staircase by walking up it. That’s how I see the process of creating a different way of living. Create the path by walking on it. One step at a time.

Meanwhile, I need to grade some papers.

 

Creativity, Bakery Bread, and Hating the Internet

Two true stories.

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First story. Guy loved to bake. He baked all sorts of things — cakes, cookies, muffins — but he particularly loved to bake bread. And he was good at it. After considerable practice he had mastered the mysteries of yeast. He had learned how much kneading is enough and how much is too much. He knew just the sound a “done” loaf of bread makes when you tap it on the bottom. He learned the ways of bread well enough to be able to experiment with ingredients — to combine things in new ways to create new recipes.

And that bread was good. Sure there was the odd doorstop in the early days, but Guy developed a reputation as someone who could produce good bread. When friends gathered for pot luck, Guy baked the bread to consistently rave reviews.

But there was one friend whose idea of a rave review was always some variation of this statement: “This is so good– it tastes just like you bought it at a bakery!” This particular “praise” always felt to Guy more like an insult. Even though he recognized that the statement was intended to mean “This bread is of a much higher quality than the processed stuff they sell at the supermarket, to Guy it always felt like, “This bread that you produced from scratch with your bare hands and brought to the party still warm from the oven is no different than the stuff I can buy from the bakery shop on the corner.”

~   ~    ~   ~   ~   ~

Second story. Gal had been playing music all her life. Piano. Guitar. One day she started playing around and before she knew it she had written a song. Then another. She started writing music all the time, and then she worked up the courage to start sharing her creations with friends and family. Everybody acted impressed and said nice things about the songs.

One person whose opinion Gal valued consistently praised Gal’s songs with the statement, “That one’s great. It reminds me of [insert name of famous song written by real composer here].” After hearing various versions of this feedback applied to song after song, Gal began to think perhaps her work wasn’t that original after all. Eventually she got busy with other projects. She hasn’t written a song in years.

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One of the fun parts of my current job is that I get to teach a workshop in Creative Thinking. We start that workshop talking about our Inner Critics — those voices we all carry around in our heads that call down our efforts at creativity. Sometimes those voices sound like the voices of real, human critics who were part of our upbringing. Sometimes those voices are less specific. Some of us are better at shushing those voices than others.

Ironically, even though I can teach others how to manage their own Inner Critics, I tend to be less successful at taming my own. I tend to second guess myself. I tend to assume that any great idea I have has already been done, a hundred times over and more successfully than anything I could produce.

And I’ve decided that when it comes to talking myself out of my own creative ideas, my biggest enemy is the internet.

It happened again this morning. I woke up with a fantastic idea for a new blog theme– maybe even a whole other blog. And then I made the fatal error. I thought to myself, “I’ll do a little search and see who else is doing something like that.”

Bad idea. Bad. Bad. Bad. BAD.

source: http://wisdomheart.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/inner-critic-1-300x254.jpg
source: http://wisdomheart.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/inner-critic-1-300×254.jpg

Of course I found dozens of blogs. Granted none were doing exactly what I was planning to do. But enough were doing related things  that I began to question the originality of my idea.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the information at our fingertips. It’s easy to convince ourselves that there is nothing new under the sun. That it’s all been said. That there are no new ideas.

But that’s not true. Because creativity can be as simple as putting two things together that have not been put together before. And by that standard, an idea has creative potential as soon as it is something that has never before been put together with me.

Or you. Or anyone. We all have the capacity to be creative, and what makes our creations truly new is that part of them that comes from within the creator– from within us.

Guy’s bread was nothing like bakery bread. Gal’s songs were her own. And my new blog idea? I think it has potential. I’m going to give it some more thought–maybe work up a bit of a plan. What I’m NOT going to do any more is short circuit my idea by holding it up to other people’s ideas for comparison.

 

On tea bags, time, and running away to join the circus

I forgot to buy tea bags.

I could have bought tea bags at any number of points throughout the day. I knew when I went to bed last night that I was using the last one. But I forgot. And now, bedtime is looming without my usual cup of cranberry herbal tea.

This bugs me, just a little.

On the other hand, it bugs me a lot that the lack of my favourite bedtime beverage bugs me at all.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I talk a lot about how much I value change. So much so, that the word change looms largest in my cloud of most frequently used tags. So I admit to feeling considerable irritation at being forced to face the uncomfortable fact that I am a total creature of habit.

And now this small thing– this lack of a tea bag– has me reflecting on all the other too-comfortable habits on which I rely. My far-from-adventurous diet. My homogeneous wardrobe. My evenings spent in pretty mundane activities. My holidays spent at the same family vacation spot every summer.

Do I really love change as much as I say I do? Or am I just a great pretender?

Am I a creature of habit because I’ve reached the stage in life where I know myself and what I want, or because I’ve settled into a nice, safe rut. This question is causing me a great deal more consternation than my lack of cranberry tea.

Deep down, the changes that I crave the most are big changes. Quitting-your-job-and-running-away-to-join-the-circus changes. Dramatic changes to how I live and how I make a living. Substantial changes to the way I spend my time and the people I spend it with. But they aren’t the kind of changes that just happen. They need building, step by tedious step. Perhaps I need to run out of tea bags more often to jolt myself out of my cozy patterns into taking actual steps toward the big dreams.

Sometimes I fear that it’s too late for big changes. I worry that I’ve reached the age where I should be happy just to settle in and appreciate my comfortable habits and my nightly cup of tea. But then I see other people, older than me, courageously strike out in new directions– new businesses, new relationships, new homes in new cities. And I have to believe that there’s still time for a grand adventure.

With or without cranberry tea.

imagine

 

 

She stepped out

steppingShe stepped out into space. It was hard to take that first step, but in retrospect it was a bit like jumping out the window of a burning building. The jump was terrifying, but staying in the fire was not an acceptable alternative.

She stepped out, not knowing if the ground would rise up to meet her feet, but believing that it must. It was easier to trust the universe than it was to trust herself. In stepping out, she discovered she could do both.

She stepped out, because no imagined outcome could be worse than the slow soul-destruction of staying where she was.

She stepped out, because she had forgotten what it was like to breathe. To think clearly. To feel whole. She stepped out in search of the person she remembered being, in flight from the person she had become.

She stepped out because it was the healthiest thing she could do.

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This post was written originally in response to a WordPress Daily prompt from several days ago: “Walking on the Moon,” asked “What giant step did you take where you hoped your leg wouldn’t break? Was it worth it, were you successful in walking on the moon, or did your leg break? Photographers, artists, poets: show us RISK.  It took more than a day for me to be happy enough with it to post it. Seriously, WordPress, some things just can’t be rushed!

 

 

Dance in the darkness

Today’s Daily Prompt asks, “What’s your learning style?”

I had a terrible time  zeroing in on a topic for my Masters thesis. I had so many ideas, all of which interested me, but most of which seemed overwhelming. Then one day my advisor rescued me from my self-imposed cognitive chaos when she said. “Anna, you’re trying to do a PhD. This is just a Masters degree.”

If “biting off more than you can chew” can be said to be a learning style, it would be mine.

kolbI have made the study of how people learn my life’s work. That makes it difficult to know where to start in responding to the question asked by today’s Daily Prompt. I could  get technical and tell you that on the Kolb Learning Style assessment I fall into the most extreme reaches of the “accommodating” quadrant. Which means I learn by doing, and I put my feelings before my thoughts when it comes to processing what I have learned.

That’s pretty accurate, actually, and according to an analysis that plots ideal careers against the Kolb learning style model, I am ideally suited to educational administration. Which is, coincidently, what I do for a living.

brainI could take a theoretical approach and tell you that I am primarily a constructivist. In layman’s terms, that means I believe that we learn by constructing new knowledge out of our experiences.

I could also say that I’m a visual learner, even though current research has pretty much discredited the notion that some people are primarily visual or auditory or kinesthetic learners. It is more likely true that we are capable of “taking in” learning through all of these modalities, but that we might have a preference for one over the other.

But the truth is that for all of my academic study of learning styles and theories, I still think the best way to describe how I learn is “reflective bumbling.” I just do stuff, and then I ponder what it felt like doing it. If I like how it felt, I keep doing it. If I don’t, I do something else.

I headed off to church this morning thinking about this prompt, and contemplating what I wanted to write about it when I got home. And then, wouldn’t you know it, we sang these words:

Dance in the darkness, slow be the pace.

Surrender to the rhythm of redeeming grace.

And it struck me that “dance in the darkness” is exactly how I learn.

You can do this dance too. There’s only one step, and it’s simple: take a step forward. It doesn’t matter if you can see where your foot will land. It will always land on something.

Without a net

What’s the thing you’re most scared to do? What would it take to get you to do it?

I always chuckle a little when people ask me about my “career plan.” I’ve had a varied career– made several significant changes in role and focus. But there wasn’t a lot of planning involved.

Well actually there wasn’t any planning really. What there was, was a lot of gradual evolving and (sometimes very happenstance) networking. And lots of being in the right place at the right time.

And, there has been an unbroken safety net positioned squarely underneath every one of my career moves.

I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve always been in a position to move from one job to the next without a gap– without unemployment. And I should also acknowledge that I have the good fortune to never have had a job that was so stifling or unpleasant that I felt I just had to escape regardless of the risks.

But I would be lying if I said I’ve never been tempted. There have been lots of times when I have fantasized about walking away and winging it. Times when I’ve thought “what if…”

But I’ve never had the courage to jump without a net. The closest I ever came was leaving a full-time, “permanent” teaching position for a part-time term position with an employer I considered more desirable. But even then I was going directly from one paycheque to another. One pension plan to another. One benefits package to another.

You get the idea.

Once in a while I catch myself dreaming about going out on my own. Freelancing. Consulting. Being my own boss.

I know people who’ve done it– who do it very successfully. I know it can be done.

But I always stop short of giving up the net. When you get to my age, a good pension plan can be pretty addictive.

The good news is that, notwithstanding the fact that every job has its ups and downs, I actually like where I work right now. Fortunately I am in a job that has enough change built right into it to satisfy my endless craving to learn new things.

I don’t know who it was that originally said, ““Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.”  Perhaps I’ve never had the courage to just plain quit any job because I’ve never had a job that was that kind of painful. I know I should be grateful for that. Because I know people who have reached that kind of breaking point in their work life and have had to make the leap–without a net–for the sake of their own well-being and personal integrity.

I still think it takes guts to jump overboard, even if  you are convinced the ship is sinking!

A couple of months ago Marina Shifren resigned from her job with a video that went viral. Now that’s what I call jumping without a net.

The company you keep

teapotI found a new friend today. Or to be more accurate, I was given him as a gift, of sorts, from a mutual friend.

We were set up. Engineered, as it were, into meeting by our mutual friend. We both admitted to having been somewhat puzzled by our friend’s insistence that we should meet. And it was a puzzle– at first– until the pieces fell into place and we shared that “aha” moment when we each realized why our friend had set us up in the first place.

Lest you get the wrong idea, this was not another blind date situation like the one I wrote about in my previous post. Not a “date” of any kind. Just two people discovering over a pot of tea that their friend was right– they did indeed have a lot in common– and a lot to talk about.

A couple of days ago I went for lunch with a work colleague who I have known for a few years strictly in a “work” context. We had a wonderful conversation — not just about work, but about our lives, our kids, our health issues. We discovered that we have great deal more in common than our professional connection.

These two encounters have left me reflecting on how seldom I put myself into situations where I can make new friends.

I have good friends. Wonderful people, many of whom have been part of my life for three decades or more. Friends with whom I can laugh and cry and argue and play and have an honest heart-to-heart about the utter nonsense that is so much of my life. There’s nothing quite like an old friend for being able to hear today’s tale of woe in the context of your whole life story.

But the flip side is this: there’s nothing like a new friend for making you hear your own story in a new way.

It’s a bit like writing, for me. When I talk with someone who doesn’t know the “backstory” to my life, I shape the story differently than I would with someone who knows me well. I have to put the things I am saying more into context– to explain more. In the process, I invariably end up explaining some things to myself. I catch myself saying thoughts out loud that I wasn’t even fully aware that I was thinking.

The experience of figuring out my own mind by sharing it with others is one of the reasons I enjoy blogging. But now I think that perhaps I have let myself become too isolated in other ways. Perhaps I have been too comfortable with my beloved “old” friends to venture out and add some new ones. Perhaps I have lulled myself into thinking that at my age I don’t really need any new friends. Perhaps I have just allowed my innate introversion to be an excuse for sticking to safe spaces and old patterns.

That fear of falling I talked about in an earlier post is perhaps just one manifestation of a bigger fear of losing control. You can’t make a new friend unless you are willing to relinquish some degree of control. You need to be willing to ride the conversation and see where it takes you.

In the past few days I have been blessed with two very enriching conversational “rides.” I find myself looking forward to the next opportunity to have a conversation with both of these individuals. And I find myself wondering: who else is out there whose conversation I am missing?

And where should I go to find them?