Please don’t ask

notebookWhen I originally started this blog over 4 years ago, I knew better than to make any commitments, even to myself, about how often I would post. I was actually on leave recovering from hip replacement surgery at the time, and I knew that as soon as I was back at work life would get far too complicated to keep up any sort of consistent publication schedule.

I would love to be the kind of person who regularly sets their alarm clock for an early wakeup, bounds out of bed, and cranks out 45 minutes of solid writing time before work every morning.

But I’m not. Maybe it’s my arthritis, but I have never been a “bound out of bed” sort of gal. Mornings are a more gradual affair for me. I need lots of  slow, “unfolding” time between when the first alarm goes off and when my feet need to hit the floor.

Nor do I manage a regular writing routine in the evenings. Some days I’m mentally done  for the day by time I leave the office and head to the bus stop. I’ve written elsewhere about the fatigue that is characteristic of many auto-immune conditions. Furthermore, I actually spend a lot of time at work writing. It may not be the writing I would do if left to my own devices, but it is writing, which means by the time I get home I’m ready for a change of activity.

I fantasize about my (still long-off) retirement years when I will be able to carve out big swaths of time to create literary masterpieces.

We’ll see about that.

Because sometimes, even when I really want to write– even when I have time when I could write, I struggle to know what I want to say.

Last year, during that long period when this blog was in hiatus, I wrote this:

 

Please don’t ask if I am writing.

If I am and you don’t know it,

then today I have not written for your eyes

And I will have to lie.

 

Please don’t ask if I am writing.

If I am not, then your inquiry twists the arrow

Lodged already in my wounded voice

And I bleed silence.

 

Please don’t ask if I am writing.

I can’t begin to tell you

how much more there is to writing

than the marks that land upon the page.

 

I am out searching the forest for a poem.

I am listening for story on a downtown city bus,

I am mining my own dreams for tragedies and gems.

I am testing future footholds for thin ice

 

Please don’t ask if I am writing

Even if I had an answer, today

the words have other things to do.

 

 

Making it look easy

The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.

“The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of master associated with being a world-class expert—in anything, “writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin. “In writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

– Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

Canada’s favorite skating pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir scored Olympic gold again. I’m not much for watching sports, but I find something captivating about the blend of technical athleticism and artistry that is ice dancing. I watch them with some degree of dissonance between my rational awareness that they have invested hours and months and years in grueling preparation to get to this moment, and the perception-in-the-moment that they make it look easy.

I can’t skate. Not because I lacked opportunity to learn. I had ice skates as a kid. I even lived a short walk from a duck pond that was converted to a public rink every winter. I recall going skating with my family periodically. I managed to stagger around the ice with sufficient coordination to survive my cousin’s childhood birthday parties and the occasional winter sports day in elementary school. My one disastrous roller rink experience is proof of my failure to transfer whatever minimal ice skating skills I did acquire.

The last time I remember being on ice skates was in university. It was an outing of a student group I belonged to – at that very duck pond I had skated on as a child. I remember that for a fleeting moment I actually felt like I was getting the hang of it. I was just starting to progress from a cautious shuffle to something resembling a glide and thinking that maybe, just maybe, if I actually put some effort into it, I could someday get to a point where I would be comfortable on skates. Then I wiped out.

I’m willing to bet that Scott and Tessa have fallen a thousand times each for every time I ever laced up a pair of skates. In fact, as I learned in this lovely TED Talk, Tessa fought her way back up onto the ice several times after painful injuries and multiple surgeries and had to relearn much of her technique to accommodate her overtaxed muscles. If you’re going to do anything for ten thousand hours you’re going to have plenty of opportunities to do it badly before you get to the point where you can do it well.

Still, even if I had persisted with skating to some level of mastery, it is unlikely my arthritic knees would ever had taken me to an Olympic podium. I don’t really think that’s how the principle of ten thousand hours of practice works. I don’t think that you can just pick something at random and become a world-class expert on the sole basis of logging rehearsal hours. As Levitin suggests, not all practice is created equal. Plus, there has to be a place in the mix for that mysterious quality we call talent.

I don’t know for sure if I’ve spent ten thousand hours writing throughout my lifetime, but I expect I have come close. Do I think of myself as a “world-class expert writer?” Absolutely not! There are lots of writing spins and jumps left for me to master, if only I can manage to carve out enough hours on the “practice rink.” I suppose that’s one reason for my return to blogging.

When I listen to Scott and Tessa speak, I am struck more than anything with how comfortable they are with their expertise. They have proven themselves the best at what they do, and in talking about their accomplishments there is no hint of either boastfulness or false modesty. They know what they are good at, they know how hard they worked to get good at it, and they own it.

Unlike ice dance, writing is not typically a spectator sport, but once in a while my work places me in boardrooms with large screens, essentially writing for an audience. I was helping someone write something at work earlier this week and, as sometimes happens, there was a moment when I was able to take a cluster of complicated sentences and render them into a single clear statement. As also sometimes happens, someone commented on my skill. When this happens, I’m always surprised that I have, in that moment, taken this thing that I continue to  work so hard to master, and somehow made it look easy.

Blockages

My kitchen sink is acting up again. After a couple of doses of peel-your-flesh-off toxic drain cleaner we had it behaving nicely for quite a while. But the other day it once again started to do that “I’ll finish draining when I get around to it” thing  that is particularly suspense-invoking when it is combined with the dishwasher draining backwards into the sink. Whatever periodically blocks that drain is clearly located downstream from the dishwasher, far out of reach of my best unclogging efforts.

It’s been a week for blockages, apparently. Wednesday afternoon my long-dormant gallstones rose up against me and knocked me flat in a gallbladder attack that came on so suddenly I had to abandon a workshop I was teaching. In thirty years spent at the front of myriad classrooms, I could not recall ever having to walk out on a class like that due to illness. I’ve taught through gastrointestinal complaints and arthritis pain. I staggered through one whole summer session with dreadful morning sickness. Once I even fell off a desk mid-lesson, picked myself up, and kept right on teaching. But this was the first time I stopped suddenly, excused myself from the room and never made it back!

Fortunately I work with people who possess amazing problem-solving skills and a “show must go on” mentality. Within minutes of my distress message to the office, one of my colleagues was by my side calling 911, and another colleague had picked up where I left off with the workshop.

The emergency room was another story, speaking of blockages. It was one of those days in the downtown ER where, if you don’t actually have blood gushing from an arterial knife wound, you’d better bring a good book and some snacks. The movement of patients through the system appeared slower than my sink drain at its most sluggish. Nine hours after my arrival, long after my gallbladder had stopped misbehaving, an enthusiastic medical student and her supervising physician pieced together a diagnosis.

It’s been a while since I’ve written here. I’m not even sure I can explain why. I could say I’ve been busy, but that’s generally a given. I could say there was nothing to write about, but anyone who pays any attention to my life can attest that there’s always something going on that has the makings of a good story.

Maybe too much. Part of my challenge lately has been not knowing where to start. There are certainly things I want to– need to– write about. But they aren’t all ready for this particular audience.

Some of them aren’t ready for any audience, really. And that’s the problem.

I’ve always thought “writer’s block” meant the writer didn’t know what to say. Lately, however, it has struck me that “writer’s block” can also result from the things we are holding back from saying. Like my pesky gallstones, or the mystery glop in my kitchen plumbing: the things we don’t say–won’t say– are afraid to say– block the flow. We  can’t write anything, because the thing we most need to write, but are resisting, is sitting in the way.

Points of view

I was getting my hair washed. I like getting my hair washed. Note that this is not the same as washing my hair. Washing my hair is a routine, pedestrian chore that goes along with showering and brushing my teeth. Getting my hair washed is something that happens at best every six weeks when I go for a haircut. Getting my hair washed is a bit of luxury — having someone else slowly and expertly massage your scalp is a substantially different experience than hastily scrubbing a bit of shampoo and conditioner over your head as you scramble to prepare for work. But I digress.

top of my headI was getting my hair washed, and a strange thought occurred to me. This young salon assistant, who I know absolutely nothing about, can see a part of my body that I can’t see myself. (Apparently strange things happen inside my head when you rub the outside!) The thought intrigued me, and it got me thinking about all the ways in which other people had views of me to which I had no access without the aid of some form of technology.

There’s a large wall of mirrored glass which reflects me walking to the elevator at work each morning, but I don’t have a clue what that mirror displays when I am walking away from it.

There is an exclusive club of doctors and nurses who have been up close and personal  with parts of my internal workings that are not normally on display.

I never get to see myself sleeping.

Then, because this is how the inside of my head works, I began to think about the less tangible ways in which other people might see aspects of me that are not readily visible from my perspective.

For example, I wrote recently about my “impostor syndrome” dream and all the anxiety that my subconsciously imagined classroom represented. In my real classroom last week, my students painted a very different picture in the feedback they provided.

hairSo which is really me? The partial me I see? Or the view that is visible to everyone else?

Both, together with a third perspective: the parts of me that only I can see. Because you may be able to see the back of my head, but only I can see what’s in it.

Unless, of course I decide to offer you a glimpse. And unless you agree to accept it.

Which is why I write this blog. And why you read it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recognized, but not that way

The Daily Prompt asks, “As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? How close or far are you from that vision?”

Famous. I wanted to be famous. I blame the acting classes, and the modicum of success I experienced in the grade nine musical theatre production. Oh and I’m sure all those piano lessons were a contributing factor. To be honest, I wasn’t very specific about what I wanted to be famous at. So long as I was famous.

At some point in my early 20s I do recall pausing to reflect on how I would know when I had achieved fame, and I came up with an elegantly simple measure. For me, being famous meant that people I didn’t know personally would recognize me  and know who I was.

So thirty years later how am I doing?

To begin with, having spent so much of my career teaching in one form or another, I have amassed three decades worth of former students. One thing about being a teacher is that there is generally one of me with a whole roomful of students, multiplied by class after class, year after year. And, to be brutally honest, unless you were really exceptional (either for good or ill), the odds of me remembering your name fifteen or twenty years later are a little iffy. But you remember me, because I was the one performing at the front of the room. So when you rush up to me in the mall to say hi, I must admit that I experience that moment as if someone I don’t know has recognized me. It’s flattering, but a little disconcerting, especially when I really don’t remember any details of our time together.

Secondly, because of a series of management roles I have held, both in the independent high school where I taught, and more recently in the public service, my name has, for years, appeared publicly. I have, for at least two-thirds of my working life, been the person who is named as being officially in charge of something. Consequently, over the years there have been particular contexts in which I could introduce myself and anticipate a response of “Oh, I know who you are!”

Andy Warhol said everyone is famous for fifteen minutes, and I have managed to pull off a few fifteen minute stints of fame for my writing. Not Margaret Atwood  or Ernest Hemingway fame. Just the kind of modest fame that lets you go to bed grinning with self-satisfaction, but leaves you still needing to haul yourself off to the day job in the morning. I’ve read my work on the radio and been published in academic journals. I’ve written study guides for a local theatre and actually been paid to do it. And twice now, in the eight months I’ve been blogging here, the lovely editors at WordPress have seen fit to Freshly Press my work. I’m still riding the wave of the most recent Fresh Press, and I have to confess that it brings out in me that same impulse that long ago made me dream of fame. It’s thrilling to watch my stats spike, to count the likes (thank you!) and tally the new follows (Welcome!) Comments mean a great deal, especially the ones where the commenter has added their own thoughts,  and the biggest reward of all is when someone re-posts what I have written.

Because the truth is, I’m no longer looking for my old vision of fame. I no longer care if, when I meet you on the street, you recognize my face or know my name. What matters to me at this stage of my life is that something I did made a difference to you. When you re-post my blog, you are telling me that you thought I said something worth reading– that it mattered to you in some way, and therefore might matter to the people who read your blog.  And that matters a great deal to me.

 

 

 

Your personal invitation to my 100th Blog Post Party!

When I first clicked “Publish” back in September I had no idea where this blog was going. It evolved, along with my newly restored ability to go for long walks, out of my time off work to recover from hip replacement surgery. My initial goals were to give myself an excuse to write more regularly, and to find an audience for my writing. The blog has been a success on both counts. While I haven’t been able to maintain the same pace since going back to work, I have managed to post at least once or twice a week even in my busiest times. I have been “Freshly Pressed” and managed to amass over 1000 followers– some of whom appear to be actual human beings, and a few of whom are actually interested in reading what I’ve written (as opposed to trying to entice me to buy their products or join their pyramid schemes… but hey, nobody said this was a perfect world.)

Yes, my daughter made this. From scratch. Did I mention her cakes were epic? The figures are made out of coloured chocolate. She even made the fondant. When I was 16 I hadn’t even heard of fondant.

Turns out, the best things about blogging are those actual human beings — both the ones who read and comment on my blog, and the ones whose writing engages and inspires me daily. So when I pondered how I could mark the milestone of my 100th blog post, it occurred to me that what I really wanted to do was to celebrate with those people whose blogs have been such an inspiration to me.

There are, however, some obvious logistical barriers. Most of my blogging friends live very far from me and from one another, and many of them blog anonymously. So as much as I would like to have my daughter whip up one of her epic cakes and have my blogging buddies over for a party, it’s not going be feasible.

Unless I make it a virtual party!

So, welcome to my 100th Blog Post Party. Break out the balloons, pour yourself a glass of your beverage of choice, and I’ll take you around the room and introduce you to the other guests.

There’s Matt from Must Be This Tall To Ride. Matt has just come through the toughest year of his life, but he has distilled an incredible amount of wisdom out of the pain of his divorce. I look forward daily to his insightful writing as he navigates his single life and the challenges of part-time parenting. And speaking of distilling tough life experiences into some amazing writing, I’d like you to meet Fish of Gold, Ziya Tamesis at A Day with Depression and Jess at The Fevered Pen.

I have become very fond of little Phillip through the stories and pictures his mom shares on That Cynking Feeling. Elizabeth at Living with Autism also blogs eloquently about her experiences parenting her autistic son, Dylan.

I’m impressed by those bloggers who can manage to produce interesting reading day in and day out, like Alienora Taylor at ALIEN AURA’S BLOG: IT’LL BLOW YOUR MIND! , Doobster at Mindful Digressions and Pat at Chronicles of an Anglo Swiss.

As a “woman of a certain age,” it has been a delight to share my midlife journey with the likes of Bulging Buttons, Elyse at FiftyFour and a Half, and Renee at Life in the Boomer Lane.

Some of you, like Tyler Pedersen at The Ancient Eavesdropper, make beautiful pictures.

Some of you make me think, like Ryan at Rumblings.

Some of you make me laugh, like Arden at Writing While Wining (Caturday!)

Lots of you make me laugh while you’re making me think.

I could go on.

Come to think of it, it’s just as well this is a virtual party. I don’t think I have enough dessert plates to invite everyone.

Welcome one and all. I’m glad to have you in my life. Let the partying begin!

party
I promise I won’t make you wear the hats. That’s a Christmas party thing in my world. But if you DO have a tissue paper hat kicking around and you WANT to wear it to my blog party, I won’t judge.

 

Postscript: Since I just posted this a few days ago, I’m going to cheat and link it up to today’s Daily Prompt.  Because it’s my party and I’ll cheat if I want to!

 

 

 

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.

 

The good, the bad and the… pensionable?

The Daily prompt for today wants to know: How do you feel about your job? Do you spring out of bed, looking forward to work? Or, is your job a soul-destroying monotony of pure drudgery, or somewhere in between?

Really, does anyone actually “spring out of bed?” Ok maybe I can think of one or two possibilities — like my car-pool partner of many years back who started the day in overdrive and was still in high gear for the ride home. But I don’t know anyone who isn’t at best a teensy bit ambivalent about their job.

I have a good job. It pays well and has great benefits. I have a nice office in a good location. I work with interesting people. I get to do things that matter. I get to exercise my creativity. I get to do things I enjoy, like writing and teaching. I have a boss who appreciates what I do and lets me know it.

My job sucks. I have to waste time jumping through bureaucratic hoops and doing mind-numbing administrative tasks. I have to sit through long, tedious meetings. I lost my parking spot. Some days I go home completely fed up with other people’s problems.

It’s the same job.

Do you have a “dream job?” I did. In fact I got my dream job. At least four times. With a couple of exceptions early in my career, most of my working life has been spent at jobs I really wanted. Every one of those jobs has been fantastic. And, at some point, every one of those jobs drove me crazy. Sometimes all in the same day.

That’s life, folks.  Nothing is perfect. When the point comes in any job when the balance begins to tip ever so subtly away from the fantastic and towards the crazy-making, then I know it’s time for a new adventure.

In the meantime, I don’t expect employment Nirvana. I know there will be good days and less-than-stellar days in any job. In fact, some days there with be good minutes and downright dreadful minutes. Most days, the good minutes come out ahead. Even if I don’t “spring out of bed” to get there.

 

Agley Again

 The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

— “To A Mouse” by Robert Burns

I swear I am the queen of good intentions. I know how I want to live. More vegetables; fewer donuts. More healthy meals prepared from scratch; fewer drive-by processed calories. More fitness activity; less Facebook. More focused writing; less aimless surfing. More mindful budget decisions; less impulse spending.

More time to do the things I love; less time wasted on things that don’t really add value anywhere.

And yet so often I catch myself sliding into a state of being I call “Surviving the Week.”

Surviving the Week is about having a fridge full of fresh vegetables, but not having the mental energy to assemble them into a salad, so I go to the cafeteria and spend money I don’t need to spend on a lunch entrée in which gravy is the dominant element.

Surviving the Week is about adding more paper to the “miscellaneous” pile on my desk instead of filing it away when I’m done with it.

Surviving the Week is about collapsing on the couch to watch mindless TV, even though I know I would feel better about life if I went for a walk.

Surviving the Week is about trolling old Facebook photos when I really want to be writing, because I didn’t go for that walk, which probably would have unlocked an idea and given me something to write about.

Surviving the Week is about beating myself up for not doing the things I really want to be doing, because I am distracted by things that are easy to do at the end of a tiring day.

I encountered this little creature on a walk back in the fall.
I encountered this little creature on a walk back in the fall.

I don’t want to be Surviving the Week. I want to be living mindfully, creatively, healthfully. And sometimes I do. But other times, like Robbie Burns’ wee Mousie, my best-laid schemes do “gang agley,” and I find myself  slipping into survival mode.`

Often that means I have simply overloaded my circuits by taking on too much. The irony is, that the things I take on that leave me feeling tapped out are typically things I want and like to do.

Like staying up way too late to write this blog post.

Who are you?

Well I’ll be. At some point last night whilst I lay sleeping, one of you clicked “Follow” and became number 500. When I started blogging a little over four months ago, my expectations lay somewhere on the continuum between “international fame” and “hopefully one or two people other than my mother will want to read this stuff.” OK perhaps a little closer to the latter. But seriously, if you had really pressed me for a prediction back in September, I don’t think I would have anticipated over 500 followers in just a few months.

I know I didn’t anticipate the flurry of attention that my blog garnered from being Fresh Pressed. I know I didn’t anticipate all the countries that would be represented by my readers. (Not quite “international fame,” but international nonetheless!) And I really didn’t anticipate that I would actually make a few friends out here on the interweb.

I’m kind of curious about the rest of you. I get that many of you only clicked “follow” because you have something to sell. If that’s you, then you should know that I’m going to be a disappointment; that’s not why I’m here. On the other hand, some of you are obviously here for the same reasons I’m here– to hone your writing, and to share that writing with an audience. In between there’s a whole gamut of blogs of all shapes and sizes. I’m especially curious about the number of bloggers who are writing in languages other than English but who have opted to follow my English-language blog.

Mostly I’m curious about what brought you here. What did you see in my writing that made you think it might be worth sticking around? What motivates you to follow a blog? Do you have a favourite post on my blog?

I really appreciate those of you who have taken the time to comment on what you have read here. Now I’d like to invite the rest of you to speak up (well, at least those of you who aren’t spam-bots!) and tell me something about who you are and why you’re here. Please say hi, either by leaving a comment here, or if you’d like, by going back to another post you liked and commenting there.

Who are you?