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Daring Greatly

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Author and self-proclaimed “shame and vulnerability” researcher Brené Brown keeps resurfacing in my life in different ways. First, I reconnected with an old childhood friend and we had a surprisingly honest, vulnerable conversation right off the bat. After bonding over some of the different, mutually deep struggles of our twenties, my friend referred me to her TED Talk about how vulnerability is the means to meaningful human connection, something to be owned and cultivated.

Then I attended a small group meeting of teachers about the subject of “cultural competence,” education jargon for how well teachers build relationships with students from diverse cultural backgrounds. We were asked to bring resources that impact our thinking on this topic, and specifically on the topic of how we show love for our students and how well that love is received. The Brené Brown TED Talk came  up again, and a co-worker of mine recommended her books Daring Greatly and Rising Strong.

I just finished Daring Greatly. Here are a couple of thoughts that come to mind:

Brown frequently uses the term “scarcity culture,” referring to the myriad ways in which society tells us that we aren’t enough as we are. I immediately think of Facebook — our frenzied, frequent status updates crying out, “I am so great!!” can seem like a desperate effort to outrun the notion that, really, we’re not enough. Brown also makes the point that for women in this so-called “scarcity culture,” it’s not enough to be small and pretty, maternal, “nice,” but it’s important to make it all look easy and effortless. If you show your struggle to meet these criteria, you’re opening yourself up to society’s critical eye. How convenient it is that we have Facebook pages we can curate to make all these hard-won accomplishments look like the natural unfolding of our lives… Oy vey…

Brown makes a point of distinguishing between the ways that women and men experience shame, and the hot points of shame for women are predictable and familiar, heavily focused on body size, appearance and mothering as I alluded to before. When Brown points out that shame around mothering applies to all women, including those who aren’t mothers, I want to shout, “Amen!”

When it comes to men, Brown calls out women on the fact that we’re constantly asking men to be vulnerable and open emotionally, but when they’re really, truly vulnerable, when they really need our help, women sometimes recoil. It turns women off, even disgusts them a little bit.

She also hits on numbing behaviors, be it emotional eating or compulsive exercising or that daily 5:00 pm cocktail. Eliminating numbing behaviors fits into another Brené Brown catchphrase, “wholehearted living.” She says that numbing the pain equals numbing the joy, and that the those of us who successfully live “wholeheartedly” instead of numbing our pain are those of us who set clear boundaries and set up our lives for balance, rather than overextending ourselves and using grit or willpower or whatever you want to call it to “manage” the imbalance that comes with an overworked, spiritually underfed existence.

But back to the conversation about teaching and parenting, giving and receiving love: One of the best kernels of wisdom Brown offers is that the best way to be a good parent, or a good teacher, isn’t necessarily to know a lot about parenting or teaching, but to live wholeheartedly yourself, as an adult. Now that’s a tall order…and one that requires vulnerability.

When I think about some of the pivotal moments in which I have earned the respect of my teenage students, I see a pattern of vulnerability on my part, a willingness to open myself up to their feelings and criticisms. When Chandler told me, “You’re one of the few teachers I have who apologizes when they’ve made a mistake.” Or earlier last year, when I unwittingly pushed a student to write about some of the personal struggles she had shared with me, and then I broke down crying (privately) when she told me that my actions made her feel uncomfortable and betrayed. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I do not believe my tears were not interpreted by this student as a sign of weakness, but as sincere regret, and I think my tears made my breach of her trust a non-issue because she could see that I took her seriously.

As with parenting, there is certainly competition and blaming and shaming in teaching — right and wrong approaches, teachers who reached a “difficult” student that others didn’t, not to mention test scores. Brown’s advice to parents could also be applied to teachers: try not to criticize another person’s teaching or parenting style if it’s different from your own (if you’re a peer) — what matters is that, as teachers and parents, we address and engage with the challenges and issues our children face.

Hello Again, Here’s a Poem

Screen Shot 2013-05-07 at 8.56.58 AMMuch appreciated readers of Swirl to Coat, I’ve missed sharing my thoughts with you. I have been deep in the world of my English classroom, and otherwise adjusting to a new home and a new city. I’ve been writing a lot of curriculum, and an article on dance history. As for the blogging scene, my sincere apologies for being MIA.

So I’m creating a new category called Life in Lists. Aside from the fact that it’s an easier, perhaps lazier way to blog my thoughts, teaching creative writing has reinforced to me how powerful lists can be for wrapping your head around your own complex consciousness and arriving at meaningful observations about your life. Our textbook, The Practice of Creative Writing by Heather Sellers (which I highly recommend to anyone interested in pursuing creative writing for their own purposes, it’s brilliant, recommended to me by one who knows her stuff) is structured according to broad principles of writing, applicable to any genre: images, energy, tension, pattern, insight… And one of the things she includes in the insight chapter is that one “way to be wise” is to make lists: “Lists force a writer to stay focused on a single subject for longer and build the wisdom muscle.

Today I won’t be sharing a list, but a poem from The Practice of Creative Writing. For me, this poem has an implicit connection to food….and in my wrapped up world of female white privilege, it also makes me think of dieting — “cursing what hurt me, and praising what gives me joy,” and leaving a popcorn trail…  You know, “how everyone eats popcorn,” according to Amy Schumer…

Personal
by Tony Hoagland

Don’t take it personal, they said;
but I did, I took it all quite personal –

the breeze and the river and the color of the fields;
the piece of grapefruit and stamps,

the wet hair of women in the rain –
And I cursed what hurt me

and I praised what gave me joy,
the most simple-minded of possible responses.

The government reminded me of my father,
With its deafness and its laws,

and the weather reminded me of my mom,
with her tropical squalls.

Enjoy it while you can, they said of Happiness
Think first, they said of Talk

Get over it, they said
at the School of Broken Hearts

but I couldn’t and I didn’t and I don’t
believe in the clean break;

I believe in the compound fracture
served with a sauce of dirty regret,

I believe in saying it all
and taking it all back

and saying it again for good measure
while the air fills up with I’m-Sorries

like wheeling birds
and the trees look seasick in the wind.

Oh life! Can you blame me
for making a scene?

You were that yellow caboose, the moon
disappearing over a ridge of cloud.

I was the dog, chained in some fool’s backyard;
barking and barking:

trying to convince everything else
to take it personal too.

The iconic food-lovers — think Julia Child — are always hearty, voracious people, feeling people, with a rich and abundant emotional life, and a corresponding appetite. If you’re reading this, I leave you with the injunction I’m giving myself — which is to take life personally in the sense that there’s power and abundance to be found in vulnerability, in pouring yourself into your work and relationships, so as far as that goes, go ahead and make a scene.

“Will You Take Me As I Am,” Part Two

“An artist seizes the passing moments that many of us forget, worries them through a whirl of sensitivity and sensibility, and elevates them into lasting artistic statements.” — Michelle Mercer

Thomas Hawk Indoor Fireworks, Plate 2 (CC BY-NC 2.0)A few weeks ago I shared my obsession with Joni Mitchell after discovering music critic Michelle Mercer’s “Will You Take Me As I Am, Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period,” a brief analysis of the many aesthetic and philosophical approaches that make Joni’s music strike such an original chord with her devoted fans. Part history, part criticism, part biographical portrait, the book is a somewhat rambling and sprawling portrait of Mitchell around the making of Blue and subsequent albums For the Roses, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Hejira. The organization of Mercer’s chapters often seems loose, even cobbled together, pulling together asides from her interviews with the singer-songwriter and bouncing back and forth from an array of tangential topics, but the bottom-line is that any bonafide Joni fan will delight in the specificity of Mercer’s praise for Joni’s music, finding a voice for an avid listener’s many unarticulated impressions. The last three chapters explore Joni’s stylistic evolution following Blue, the ways in which this defining work led her in new directions. Here’s a brief summary:

As mentioned in my previous post, Joni was very conflicted about her reputation as a “confessional” songwriter — she wanted her songs to be universal, to embody the experience of the listener, rendering references to specific events and people in her own life irrelevant. At the same time, the deep mining of self, the intense self-exposure that made Blue so aching and intimate, is one of Joni’s signature strengths as an artist. In “Beyond Personal Songwriting,” Mercer explores this defining feature of Mitchell’s sensibility and the forces that led her to move beyond it.

According to Mercer, one factor was that the up-and-coming songwriters of the 1970s, unlike Dylan, Mitchell, and Young in the 1960s, did not have the lyrical sophistication to transform autobiography into complex, universal truths. She writes that “the difference between earlier autobiographical songs and later ones is something like the difference between a piece of writing that evokes a ‘small sob in the spine of the reader,’ which is how Nabokov once described his writing aims, and a journal entry that vents feelings.” Another factor was the fading away of the 1960s counterculture — the previous crop of singer-songwriters implicated society in their exploration of personal struggles, and as this wave of disillusionment fell away, so did the muscle of their confessions.

So Joni responded in a couple of ways: she invented characters, rendering new songs more like dramatic monologues, and she recast her music in the rich sounds of world music. In the mid 1970s Joni recruited the band the L.A. Express for her promotional tour of Court and Spark, lending the album a new feeling of theatricality and artifice, in contrast to the idea of an exposed, vulnerable solo artist alongside her instrument, mining nothing more than her personal experience. The presence of a band also satisfied her new leanings toward more expansive, complex arrangements.

Court and Spark marked a radical departure from Blue — it was Joni’s first foray into full jazz arrangements, in addition to being chock full of characters, from music  mogul in “Free Man in Paris” to schizophrenic in “Twisted.” Her new jazz sound was casual, conversational, with a less angst-ridden orientation to romance. Mercer points out that the autobiographical still played a major role, though, such as with the title track, “Court and Spark,” based on Mitchell’s encounter with a crazy fan. Joni claims not to be influenced by the 1950s Beat poets, but according to Mercer, writers like Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg paved the way for this autobiographical approach, in which soul-searching produced the substance of art and writers sought to transcribe their consciousness onto the page as purely and transparently as possible.

“It never has been easy whether you do or do not resign, whether you travel the breadth of extremities or stick to some straighter line” — “Hejira,” Joni Mitchell

In “Breadth of Extremities,” Mercer charts the making of the album Hejira, among other pursuits, as well as Mitchell’s continued exploration of a familiar theme: the contrast between love and freedom, coming to terms with her own uprootedness. This is reflected in the album title, the word “hejira” coming from the arabic Hijra, referring to Muhammed’s migration to Medina. In other words, it’s a running away to find wisdom and enlightenment, versus a cowardly running away, or an attempt to escape. For example, in the song “Amelia” Joni conflates her desire for the open road, the inevitability with which she eventually leaves her lovers, to Amelia Earhart’s skyward journey, repeating “Amelia, it was just a false alarm” to mean, in Mercer’s reading, that just as Earhart “was swallowed by the sky,” Joni “spent [her] whole life in clouds at icy altitude” and it’s a false alarm to think that either will return home, literally or figuratively. Once again, a failed romance served as Joni’s muse — this time, her love affair with jazz drummer John Guerin.

Prior to Hejira, Joni experienced some marked extremes, beginning with a 1975 tour with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, featuring Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, and Ronee Blakely. This drug and alcohol filled “circus” is contrasted with Joni’s encounter with Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa in Boulder, Colorado. After their meeting in which he advised her to “just quit analyzing,” Mitchell claims to have “‘had no sense of ‘I’ or me, no self-consciousness for three days.'” As Mercer frames it, the writing of the album Hejira represents a sort of detox from the Rolling Thunder tour, Joni’s attempt to write herself back into the state of meditative contentment that Trungpa led her to.

Then Mercer embarks on a brief analysis of Hejira. She writes that Mitchell’s analysis of romantic love on the album reflects a “new distance…from her desires,” with songs like “A Strange Boy” as compared to ones like “All I Want” on Blue, speculating that this newfound distance is a “pervasive if subtle sign of Trungpa’s influence.” The instrumentation on Hejira is much thinner than Mitchell’s foray into lush jazz with Court and Spark, and the songs invoked a sense of wandering by mixing different keys and featuring the “unruly” (Joni’s word) bass lines of jazz musician Jaco Pastorius. The song “Refuge of the Roads” directly references Joni’s encounter with Trungpa — in the first line, “I met a friend of spirit” — and her plunge back into the evaluative, analytical, self-critical melancholy of an artist, leaving Trungpa for “the refuge of the roads.” Mercer writes that Hejira is “no less honest and hyper-expressive” than Blue, but “Mitchell suffered no crisis of self-exposure” because there is an overriding sense of self-acceptance, of making peace with the unresolved nature of love and romance. Mercer argues that this greater self-acceptance in her mid-thirties allowed Joni to focus outward on future albums like Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, outward toward social commentary and musical experimentation.

Mercer’s last chapter, entitled “Stuff Joni Likes or Even Loves,” seeks to dispel the myth of the bitter, disparaging crank that is often perpetuated by media interviews. Instead, Mercer explores Mitchell’s “lust for life” by compiling a simple list of her praise as a refreshing, interesting window into the artist’s mind, gathered from their interviews together and a few outside sources. To close out this rambling entry, here are some of my favorite “likes”:

  • “‘[Cigarettes are] a focusing drug. Everybody should just be forced to smoke.'”
  • “‘I used to look to Dylan or Neil [Young] for songwriting inspiration but now, there’s no one really cutting it, so you gotta turn to the short story tellers.”
  • “‘[Former Black Panthers] are my best audience. The ‘Joni Mitchell, she don’t lie’ school.'”

Reading Wonder

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” — Ian Maclearan

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 8.45.07 AMI just finished reading Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, assigned for a SPED class. In my opinion, the above quote encapsulates the spirit of the book as a whole, about the struggle for kindness in the most petty and mercurial of settings: middle school. The protagonist Auggie suffers from a rare, genetic deformity that leaves his face mangled, and Wonder charts his first year at Beecher Prep following years of homeschooling.

The events of Auggie’s school year are described by several child narrators, including Via, Auggie’s sister, sympathetic classmates Summer and Jack, Justin, Via’s boyfriend, Miranda, Via’s friend, Auggie’s bully, Julian, and Auggie himself. Each narrator grapples honestly with the ramifications of Auggie’s physical differences, from the need to suppress visceral, uncompassionate responses to his appearance, to the resentments created by Auggie’s special status. The good, the bad, and the ugly of Auggie’s special circumstances are explored; no attachment to political correctness dilutes the very real and present challenge of being in the world with an unusual-looking face. There are insights to be gleaned from each character:

Auggie…

possesses forthrightness, courage, and charm. Having been home schooled due to frequent surgeries, middle school presents Auggie with a new, formidable  world in which to immerse himself. He excels academically but is predictably subjected to a high quantity of teasing from his peers.

For example, Auggie is at the center of a game called “the plague.” As the rules go, any student who touches Auggie catches it. So Auggie watches as his peers make conspicuous efforts to avoid him. His charm stems from the detached, matter-of-fact resignation he exhibits toward his deformity, and toward the gaping and staring and knee-jerk immaturity that his appearance inspires.

In the opening pages, titled “Ordinary,” Auggie makes plain the severity of his physical differences — “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse” — and makes an equally compelling case for his commonness — “I think the only person in the world who realizes how ordinary I am is me.” I wonder how many children who are marked by visible, defining differences, either physical or behavioral, feel this way, feel regularly misjudged and misread on the basis of what is obvious about their appearance or demeanor, when for them, their differences are simply something to get past.

This disparity between what a person feels on the inside — ordinary hopes, fears, desires, aversions — and projects on the outside — extraordinary physical or behavioral qualities — is a heavy burden. It demands a heightened level of thoughtfulness and empathy from the outside world, and sometimes the world refuses to give it. Circle back to the need for kindness, the mindset that everyone is fighting a battle, that our eyes deceive us, that a second, third, fourth closer look reveals the shared humanity, the ordinariness, of every human being.

Jack…

is Auggie’s best friend. But even for Jack, it takes time to develop the maturity and compassion that Auggie’s differences demand. For example, Jack admits to the reader that he was initially averse to the principal’s request to meet Auggie prior to the start of school. Then, on Halloween, Auggie overhears Jack talking disparagingly to several boys about his obligatory friendship with him. This incident drives Auggie over the edge, emotionally — a shock, when he thought Jack saw the real person underneath the face. Auggie responds by giving Jack the cold shoulder, a shift that bewilders and flusters his friend. Jack asks their mutual friend Summer Dawson for an explanation and she drops him a hint.

Just before Jack and Auggie are assigned to be partners for a science-fair project, Jack puts two and two together. Auggie caught him in a moment of pettiness, smallness, projecting the attitude toward Auggie that he was supposed to have, according to Julian and the popular crowd. This look at himself, reflected through Auggie’s eyes, kills him. Back to science class. Julian tries to get Jack to switch partners, inciting, “You don’t have to be friends with that freak if you don’t want to be,” and impulsively, Jack punches Julian in the mouth. Underlying the punch seems to be Jack’s frustration with himself for trying to be someone he is not. It’s an overcompensating statement that says, “I am definitely not Julian, not a bully.” Needless to say, this action softens Auggie’s resentment toward Jack, and the two boys resume their friendship.

I like the character Jack because he represents a response to physical difference that is at once sincere, good, human, and imperfect. He has moments of selfishness, as evidenced above, but his feelings toward Auggie are sincere and strong. His friendship with Auggie is an honest depiction of a relationship with a person who is different — sometimes it involves hurt feelings, sometimes loyal friends make mistakes, sometimes the differences get in the way. Jack reassures the reader that he/she can also overcome the small, pettier impulses that strike (well beyond middle school, if we’re honest with ourselves), and that authentically embracing others’ differences is possible even for judgmental, selfish, not-always-so-nice folks.

Via…

is another ally of Auggie’s, fiercely loyal but without a resentment-free relationship to Auggie. As Auggie’s sister, just a few years older, Via has born witness to his unusual struggles more than anyone, to the point that her own identity is partially defined by her brother’s special needs. When kids stare, point, or register disgust on their faces, Via feels it by extension. When the janitor at Via’s elementary school calls the home-schooled Auggie by name, it’s an invitation for Via to resettle into the familiar role of Auggie’s sister. Or when she can’t play so as not to disturb her brother after surgery. Or when she sees mom hovering nervously outside Auggie’s bedroom door, and wonders, for her mother’s sake, how many times she’s done that, and then, if it’s ever been her bedroom door. Or when she lies about taking the subway and gets away with it, because mom is distracted.

Via’s is a lifetime of choices, moments, that link her to her brother, which is both a source of great affection and angst. In “A Tour of the Galaxy,” Via writes that “August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun.” Later she recalls a four-week visit to her “Grans” during one of Auggie’s surgeries. For the first time, she experienced normalcy — no Auggie, no one pointing or staring in public. Before she left, Grans let her in on a very taboo secret: she was Grans’s favorite, even more than Auggie. Knowing this meant the world to her, given the galaxy at home.

As much as Via’s self-concept is shaped by forces beyond her control, she demonstrates a strong and consistent ability to step outside of herself, to regard her brother’s problems and her parents’ reactions with a high level of empathy and objectivity. For example, she follows up the comment about Auggie being the sun in their familial galaxy with the admission that her “worst day, worst fall, worst headache, worst bruise, worst cramp, worst mean thing anyone could say has always been nothing compared to what August has gone through…” In “August Through the Peephole,” Via wonders what her brother sees when he looks in the mirror — his face, or the person behind the face? She professes to feeling profoundly sad when Auggie cuts off his Padawan braid, associated with his lifelong obsession with Star Wars. This signal of a desire to conform, of heightened self-consciousness, also signals Auggie’s loss of innocence, perhaps, a lagging insulation from the cold, hard perceptions of others, kicking in Via’s protective instincts and her profound sense of empathy.

What does Via teach us? That sibling relationships are complex, enduring, and deep. And the existence of special needs further complicates things. And we shouldn’t forget the sister, the brother of the kid with special needs. Theirs is a ongoing world of “wonder” (and worry): who am I in relationship to this person? To his problems? What would life be like if…? What can mom and dad deal with today?

Summer…

More than any other character, Summer embodies the spirit of kindness invoked by Ian Maclearan. In “Weird Kids,” Summer admits to befriending August on the first day of school because she felt sorry for him. But what starts as a kind gesture — sitting next to Auggie at lunch — quickly develops into something more mutual. “I keep sitting down with him because he is fun,” Summer writes. When an insecure Auggie accuses Summer of befriending him because the principal, Mr. Tushman, requested it, Summer gets the chance to set the record straight directly to Auggie: She just plain likes his company, and “he was such a good sport about himself.” Summer is curious, open, non-judgmental, and in the end, she benefits from Auggie’s friendship.

Julian…

is, in many ways, the opposite of Summer. Julian is anxious kid, and decidedly unempathetic. He’s a jerk to Auggie for the majority of the school year; to the point that he gets called into the principal’s office for bullying. But Julian gets the last word — his chapters close out the book — perhaps this is the author’s way of asserting that his and Auggie’s stories are deeply intertwined.

On the one hand, Julian has special needs of his own, albeit psychological and behavioral, making it easy to write him off before putting his behavior in context. Julian has nightmares and anxiety issues, and Auggie’s face exacerbates them. In the chapter, “First Look,” about Julian’s first time meeting Auggie, Julian says about the moment he first saw Auggie’s face, “I think I said that word [dude] a thousand times to myself.”

However, Julian’s anxiety about Auggie is separate from his outsized, mean-spirited response to that anxiety, which includes trying to turn all kids in the grade against Auggie, creating “the plague” game, and posting taunting notes in Auggie’s locker. Julian’s tactics don’t work in the end. While he ends up switching schools, Auggie becomes a class favorite after a school camping trip, and wins a big award at the end of the school year. Julian is left to feel embarrassed by his lack of kindness.

Like Auggie, Julian has a chapter called “Ordinary,” in which he defensively claims that despite being mean, he’s just an ordinary kid responding to an anxiety-producing situation in an ordinary way. Julian’s mom encourages him to justify his mean behavior — she’s a member of Beecher Prep’s board of trustees who engages in her own acts of meanness, such as photoshopping Auggie’s photo in the class picture and expressing outrage at Mr. Tushman, the principal, for allowing a “special needs” child in a non-inclusion school. Julian mimicks his mom’s tendency to translate anxiety into anger.

It’s not until Julian spends some time in Paris with his grandmother over the summer that he breaks down and admits that he was in the wrong, that he was afraid of Auggie, that his fear drove him to do unfair, immoral things. His grandmother, who lived through the Holocaust, tells him a moving story about being hidden by a crippled classmate that she had previously mocked. Her admission of similar guilt allows Julian to fess up, and motivates him to change. He writes a letter of apology to Auggie and Auggie responds generously.

So what do we learn from Julian? That angry, intolerant kids are fighting their own battles, ones they don’t know how to handle. That it’s a choice to let one’s fear of someone else’s differences translate into anger and bullying, it’s not something to be justified. That parents set the tone for their kids…and sometimes, grandparents need to intervene!

Wonder

So…Wonder. The title of this book seems so appropriate to the reality of living with special needs — from the wonder of how one individual’s circumstances, differences set in motion an altered reality for so many other people (think Julian switching schools to Via’s identity being defined by her brother), the wonder of the ordinary and the extraordinary being embodied in one person, the wonder of the human body, its strange complexity magnified by having certain limitations, the wonder of how families and individuals push through challenges and overcome tremendous obstacles.

As teachers we are trained to use people-first language, as in, “students with disabilities” versus “disabled students,” as a sign of respect for the humanity of the children in question. But I think the best way to dignify the experience of students with special needs is through storytelling. And Wonder, with its kaleidoscope effect of multiple narrators exploring all sides of Auggie’s story, keeps the reader questioning, and marveling, at the richness and the struggle of an utterly special, utterly ordinary life, fully lived.

A Resolution for the New Year

Kevin Dooley Christmas from the present's perspective CC BY 2.0I just started reading Daniel G. Amen’s book, Unleash the Power of the Female Brain. In it Amen argues that women’s brains are hardwired for the following strengths: empathy, intuition, self-control, collaboration, and a little worry. In turn, each of these strengths corresponds to a vulnerability of sorts: respectively, a tendency to feel responsible for everything and everyone, knee-jerk feelings of anxiety without having amassed the full facts, futile and frustrating attempts to control others, excessive approval seeking, and unhealthy doses of worry that lead to chronic stress. I especially identify with the positive and negative attributes of the intuition and worry piece — self-control, not so much, to which anyone who has spent any time with me and a jar of nutella can attest.

I remember, when I was probably grumbling about some aspect of my perceived incompetence, a friend saying to me that I had to stop assessing my self-worth on such a day-to-day basis. Similarly, a former boyfriend used to call me out on my incessant tendency to “analyze.” I don’t know what worry is if not a nagging impulse to analyze, scrutinize, to tease apart events and issues in one’ life that are really quite small, making up a fraction of the whole, that, like threads in a loosely woven tapestry, need room to breathe. A healthy new year’s resolution for me this year might be to hit pause on all of the assessing and reassessing that I am so stubbornly prone to and measure my own failures and successes within the context, the arch, of my life as a whole. Along with that comes a clearer, more impactful and present vision of what I want my life to look like, otherwise known as perspective. Anyone care to join me, come December 31st, when the clock strikes midnight, in toasting the revelation that life is marathon, not a sprint, that taking things slow and steady with a lot of deep breaths is in fact the wisest way to win the race?

In the meantime, there’s dinner to worry about. But I’ve got a resolution for that, too: earlier this week I suggested the merits of cooking one’s way through an entire cookbook, and for me, that would be Quick and Easy Chinese, loosely inspired by author Nancy McDermott’s stint in the Peace Corps. Talk about perspective — what I love most about homemade Chinese food is that mise en place is an imperative. Mise en place is the chopping and measuring of all ingredients prior to cooking so that the cooking process is essentially reduced to combining everything over a flame. Literally, “putting in place” all the ingredients gives the cook a clear sense of where the recipe is going and certainly appeals to the control freak lurking in your female (or male) brain. For example:

Chicken Stir-Fry
Adapted from Almond Chicken, 
Quick and Easy Chinese

Ingredients

12 oz boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon dry sherry
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/4 cup chopped green onion

Tools

Mixing bowls
Measuring spoons/cups
Cutting board
Chef’s knife
Spatula
Whisk or fork
Large skillet

  •  Cube the raw chicken breast. Place it in a large mixing bowl with the soy sauce. Stir to evenly coat the chicken.
  • In a small bowl, combine the chicken stock, sherry, cornstarch, sesame oil, and sugar. Stir well.
  • Mince the ginger and chop the onion, green onions, and bell pepper. Have these ingredients ready to go in mixing bowls.
  • Heat the skillet over high heat. Add the vegetable oil and ginger. Add the chicken and spread it out into a single layer. Cook undisturbed until the edges turn white, about 1 minute, and then toss well.
  • Add the onion and green pepper. Cook, tossing now and then, until all the chicken is cooked through and the onions and peppers are fragrant and beginning to wilt.
  • Add the chicken stock mixture. Toss well to mix everything together. As soon as the sauce thickens, remove the pan from the heat and add the green onions. Serve with white or brown rice.

When Things Fall Apart

Justus Hayes La Chartreuse - Not Thorough Enough CC BY 2.0Yesterday morning I awoke to a crisis, of sorts — my closet had literally imploded in the middle of the night. Shelves smashed into the door, shoes shoved up against the wall, a heaving mass of clothes and bags and drawers to remove, gingerly, from the slightly cracked door. Today ended with a trip to Home Depot and a living room stacked with boxes and drawers, clothes hanging from my keyboard stand. This had to happen for a reason, I tell myself. Couldn’t find time to purge, now I’m forced to reckon with piles of things I forgot I owned.

Daphne Rose Kingma, of The Ten Things To Do When Your Life Falls Apart, would say that I’ve “integrated my loss,” number seven on the list of ten. Please forgive the implication that my closet is my life — although it has taken on a life of its own unfurled this way in the middle of my living room, so the metaphor seems apt. In all seriousness, Kingma writes that “crisis of any kind calls us into integration,” which means facing the troubles, losses that we experience, telling ourselves the truth about our struggles, and granting them a meaningful place in the narrative that we construct about our lives.

There’s a saying that I sometimes hear intoned in yoga classes: “I am exactly as I should be today.” It reorients the mind from a constant state of comparison — what is versus what should be — to simply, what is. With this mantra, the mind is freed up to observe and claim ownership of what naturally exists, and to proclaim the rightness of it, because it is. I imagine that this way of thinking has something do with the concept of integration, in its way of honing powers of observation versus powers of control, even the darker, unwelcome aspects of our surroundings, circumstances, and identities are acknowledged and incorporated.

Kingma writes that our “human nature prefers distinction, separation, and confusion, [but] our spiritual nature seeks wholeness, inclusion, and union. Since we are ultimately spiritual in nature, life keeps pointing us in the direction of this growth.” As much as we might resist embracing what is painful about life, casting our experience in a line, with steps “forward” and “back,” the reality is that we don’t selectively determine our path, instead, our path happens to us, and in it’s in our best interest to include the unplanned, unwanted directions in constructing a more three-dimensional image of ourselves.

It seems that I’ve veered a long way from my caved-in closet. As I pick up the pieces, I’ll try to embrace the chaos for what it is. After all, it is.

On Writing and Feeling

If there are mountains, I look at the mountains By Santoka Taneda English version by John Stevens If there are mountains, I look at the mountains; On rainy days I listen to the rain. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. Tomorrow too will be good. Tonight too will be good.

I received this poem in my inbox today and feel compelled to share it. Like many, I aspire to and struggle to live more purely in the present moment. With that struggle in mind, what a serene thought it is that “tomorrow will be good,” and so will today, and tonight, simply because what exists exists, and we are here to enjoy it. I find the poet’s simple, sparse language to be startingly articulate; in its simplicity, it deepens and subtly shifts my thinking about what it means to live in the moment, reassuring me that however scattered or anxious my state of mind, there is an inherent simplicity in having presence of mind. We simply need to be receptive to what surrounds us — “if there are mountains, look at the mountains.” The world does its work for us and we are here, simply enough, to receive the world.

There’s a mantra that I cling to, although I can’t remember where I encountered it, that “There is no pain in the present moment.” When I find myself rushing mentally, I am reminded that so much of human pain is sheer anticipation, cognitive chaos, the firing of neurons generating fear and angst, pain that does not exist apart from the ruminator’s overactive thought process. Which leads me to consider the discipline of writing. I’m sure that the same synapses that cause unnecessary, self-generated pain are the impetus behind beautiful and insightful streams of words. From that perspective, it’s not ideal to strictly limit one’s focus to what is immediate and concrete, but rather to pay close attention to feelings and thoughts that deviate from the moment and channel them into something concrete of their own, such as an outpouring of language.

If writing is a way of embracing our stray feelings and thoughts, allowing us to attend to the present moment of our own, individual, internal worlds, then I could do a better job of it. When a friend of mine recently challenged me to think about how much raw feeling is connected to my writing pursuits, I realized that I could better fuse the part of me that loves the creative act of laying out words on paper with the part of me that is sensitive, susceptible to a surplus of feeling. Sometimes I forget that writing is a tremendous receptacle for pain and joy and a whole range of feelings in between, and when I’m feeling down or up or somewhere in between I don’t think to turn to the page. How great it would be if instead of dumping, or sighing out our feelings of pain into something escapist, we could energize and invigorate ourselves, and validate the feelings we are having, by giving our feelings a voice. Here’s to writing from the heart.

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