Tag Archives: gratitude

A Single Share

 

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Eleven years teaching writing. The best years of my working life.

The writing teacher is confidant. The writing teacher is mentor. The writing teacher is cheerleader. The writing teacher is the center of a community composed of people striving to reach others, the facilitator of human connection.

My students figure out rather quickly that their teacher is an idealistic and sentimental person. I tell them their goal as writers is to enable readers to live vicariously and gather insights about life. I explain that writers can’t reach this goal unless they block imposter voices—the voices of teachers, parents, friends and others that whisper in their minds and tell them how and what to write, smothering the unique perspectives they alone can share with readers.

I urge my students to write from their hearts. They must let their writing be inspired by what moves them, both intellectually and emotionally. If they do, their work will impact other people.

I assure my students that if their work stirs, enlightens or comforts just a single other individual or prompts the tiniest positive change, it’s a success.

I’ve meant what I say to my students, and most seem to believe me. Take, for example, Zach. For a high school class I taught, he wrote a memoir about his brother’s death and then submitted it to a contest. After winning, he reflected:

Winning is fun but not exactly a soccer game; the thrill of winning is not the same.

But my story will be published. If just one person reads my story and is consoled or gains an insight from it, then I will have done what I thought could not be done: bring hope and optimism out of something I thought could only be sad and depressing.

Knowing that, the excitement of winning becomes secondary to the idea that I might be able to help someone who otherwise may not have been reached.

Lately though, I’ve lost track of my own words, lost tract of Zach’s echo of them. I’ve entered the blogosphere.

When I first wrote a blog post, I practiced what I preached: I wrote from the heart, trusting that someone would read my essay and be moved. That single imagined person would make the work I’d done worthwhile, rendering it successful.

The day my piece was posted, though, I noticed something curious. At the end of the piece appeared a row of icons: F Share, Tweet, Email, Share, F Like, Google+. And above every icon was a number: 23, 1, 20, 71, 15, 0.

Since I’m a baby boomer, this took a moment to process. Where these statistics counting people who’d found merit in my essay? Inwardly, I smiled. Success: 130 shares.

Then I made a mistake: I checked the number of shares other contributing bloggers had earned for their posts that week:

Post 1: 249.

Post 2: 179.

Post 3: 1573.

1573?

I was a terrible failure, the uncontested loser of the pack.

A few weeks later, I tried to write a second post, but I couldn’t focus my thoughts. Imposter voices were rampant, relentlessly babbling in my brain:

Write about something in the news; that should prompt prolific sharing. A music post might lead to even more.

Chuck the idea about prayer; it might turn off secular readers. Ditch the yoga concept; it might hinder Christian shares.

Compose a sophisticated essay to capture erudite readers. Better yet, write a witty, chatty memoir to trigger millennial Tweets.

Passing gargantuan gallstones would have been less painful than writing that post.

On the publication date, I checked my post as soon as it went live: 7:00 am: 3 shares. Not a propitious beginning, so I checked each quarter hour of the day:

10:00 am: 21.

Noon: 83.

5:00 pm: 149.

I frowned at the computer screen. Come on, can’t you make it 150?

All throughout the day, I tried to ignore the blog site, but it was a mammoth horseshoe magnet and I a tiny metal flake. I berated myself at bedtime because in the race with that week’s bloggers, I was in only third place.

Recently, I vacationed in Austria. High on a hill overlooking Salzburg sits Hohensalzburg Fortress. From 1871 to 1918 it housed Archduke Rainer’s 59th Infantry Regiment, branded the “bravest of the brave” for its exploits in World War I. Visitors to the fortress can see mementoes of the regiment’s life and work: uniforms, helmets, boots, buckles, military musical instruments, regalia and flags.

While exploring the fortress, I was captured by an exhibit of the brigade’s medals of honor: badges with red and white ribbons and dangling metal coins, crosses, wreaths or birds. Above the display cases were photographs of the regiment, each man with a row of medals pinned upon his puffed-out chest. Among the photos were scattered paintings of the regiment in battle, men bleeding and dying in the snow, their badges still appended to their breasts.

Had these soldiers squandered their lives seeking a row of ribboned medals?

Was I misspending mine pursuing a row of blog post shares?

In one of my favorite parables, a man going on a journey calls his servants and entrusts his possessions to them. To one he gives five talents, to another, two.

Then the master leaves. The servant who received five talents trades them, making another five, and the one who received two makes another two.

When the master returns, his servants bring him what they’ve earned, and he says to each of them: “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Come, share your master’s joy.”

The master didn’t distinguish between the servant who presented ten talents and the servant who presented only four. Each talent had yielded one more. Each talent had earned just a single share.

Yet the master was satisfied.

The next time I post a blog piece, I hope to remember what Zach did: a single share is enough. A single share should suffice to occasion gratitude and joy and render work a success.

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The Truth Told Slant

1879221_101_430Every winter I plunge into darkness.

As Seattle days shorten to eight hours with clouds covering most of them and the city readies for ten months of showers, my inner world becomes as bleak as the world outside. I burrow through three seasons like a shrew mole through the mud, tunneling deeper to cry, surfacing only to complain.

Born and raised in New York, I’ve not adjusted in twenty-seven years.

I suppose this isn’t surprising. All my grandparents were natives of Sicily, a place where even in winter daylight persists for ten hours with nary a cloud in the sky. The people of Palermo wake to sun 228 days per year.

When my grandparents immigrated to the US, they did well to settle in Manhattan, where the sun shines over Central Park 235 days. The Space Needle basks in sunrays only fifty-eight.

My doctor calls my melancholy SAD, a depression caused by lack of sunlight resulting in low serotonin. Those who experience it suffer desolation, petulance, anxiety and social strain.

Since evolution has optimized humans for equatorial light, SAD is common in northern latitudes and climates with cloudy skies. Dark-eyed people like me are genetically predisposed. Blue eyes take in more light. Seattle is simply insufferable for someone with my genes.

I can’t, though, blame my darkness solely on the weather. The past six years have been tough. Just as my children left for college, I lost my full-time job, and I can’t seem to find a new one, thirty years of résumé be damned.

Since I’ve desperately tried to fill the void with a grab bag of pursuits not always suited to me—part-time, volunteer and temp jobs, housework, classes here and there—I’m left feeling frantic, lonely, worthless, bored, and more so every year.

This winter SAD struck hard. I could barely rouse myself mornings, sometimes didn’t bother dressing, cried if my cat crossed my path, overate, skipped the gym, ignored my friends. Every evening I pleaded with my husband, “Get me out of here! There’s nothing for me in Seattle, nothing at all but rain.”

But, in truth, I knew my husband couldn’t leave. He’s worked decades to grow his business and it’s not portable.

Once, I met an American woman vacationing in Tuscany. She told me that although she was married, she always travelled solo and lived alone too. Her husband preferred Boston and she Cos Cob, so they had separate homes.

When I asked the woman if she was ever lonely, she shrugged, “Why should I be? I’m never by myself. My favorite companion is me.”

At this, I remember passing judgment. How selfish. What’s the point of such a marriage? I could never be like her.

Still, in the bleak of winter, I determined that I could. If my husband couldn’t leave Seattle, I’d move by myself.

The idea was so radical and bewildering that my mind could scarcely comprehend it. I’d buy a tiny house. A house in North Carolina, where there are 220 annual days of sun. I turned on my computer, began to search online, and after ten minutes on Trulia, there my dream home was.

2026 Sycamore.

This classic 1929 cottage was one-third the size of our Seattle house. See the lovely lemon shingles, the cheerful side veranda, the steep pitched roof and sun-drenched lawn.  Note the cozy rooms, the quaint divided windows, the sunbeams angling through the panes lighting the honey hardwood floors.

What relief this house would bring me, so tiny, simple, bright. I’d leave my tattered furnishings behind, discard my old books, not need very much. I’d spend my time reading Kindle on the porch or planting a garden in the sun—azaleas, honeysuckles, witch hazels, asters, bee balms, goldenrods.

The inside of my cottage would be an uncluttered haven just for me, the outside an ebullient sight for the community.

This would be the home of my heart. Thrice daily I ogled it on Trulia, walked around the block on Google Earth. How apt that it was located on Sycamore, for I was sick in love.

One rainy spring morning after dreaming of the house, I came across a poem by Emily Dickinson, as quoted in a Parker Palmer essay:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,

Success in circuit lies,

Too bright for our infirm delight

The truth’s superb surprise.

Palmer was pondering depression, a state he claims is caused when we disrespect the true self, the person God created us to be.

When we honor the true self, we choose pursuits that employ our inborn talents, resist pursuits that don’t and heed our natural limitations. Doing so brings us joy and enables us to serve those around us. Doing otherwise causes depression and burdens the community.

To honor the true self, we must listen to the promptings of its voice, which Palmer calls the inner teacher, others call the soul, and others the still, small voice of God. But this voice can often challenge the resistant ego, so to make acceptance easier, it sometimes tells the truth slant, using metaphor.

Could it be that the Carolina cottage was a trope composed by my true self? Not the dwelling I should buy, but the person I should be?

Rather than welcome less square footage, should I embrace my diminished role in the professional world? Instead of shedding tattered furnishings, should I drop unfulfilling work, like teaching basic grammar and dusting the church pews?

Rather than throw out old books, should I discard worn sob stories, like those about my SAD and unemployment? Instead of planting a new garden, should I cultivate pursuits I have and love, like writing and, yes, gardening, and caring for family and friends?

Who would I be if I did these things? Inside, an uncluttered, tranquil person; outside, ebullient, generous.

Perhaps the brilliant sunlight angling through the Carolina windows is simply the truth told slant by the voice of my true self.  Now it’s summer, and I am listening.

Peripheral Vision

3443136727_e5ae4b0e93_zNot long ago, I had surgery. I suppose that in the vastness of creation, the precipitating problem wasn’t much; with age I’d lost peripheral vision due to drooping eyelids. For several years I’d lived in shadow, sight obscured by canopies of flesh.

My ophthalmologist prescribed blepharoplasty coupled with an endoscopic brow lift. If I chose to have the surgery, he’d put me under general anesthesia, incise along my eyelids’ natural creases and in several places in my scalp. He’d remove excess skin, muscle, and fat and close the gashes with myriad stitches. The procedure would take about two hours, healing, four to five weeks, after which—he hoped—my field of vision would appreciably improve.

When I woke up in recovery, my body tensed with terror, my eyes and head pulsed with pain. I could scarcely press open my eyelids—was anybody there? I felt my husband’s hand in mine, heard a nurse calling my name, but saw only an under-ocean swirl—searing light, floating glow-spots, miasmatic silhouettes. Had my surgeon blinded me?

The first few days at home, I lay supine on the couch—inert—ointment in my closed and crusted eyes, pads on my livid lids, bandages round my throbbing head, heavy icepacks on my face. And for some reason I still don’t understand—anesthesia, pain medication?—I lost control of my thoughts, which tumbled into pondering my past, spiraled into panic for the future, pummeled me so relentlessly that my physical black and blueness paled before the bruising of my heart.

For the previous several years, I’d been teaching writing as an adjunct professor at a college. There, I’d given my all to my students: I’d worked fifty hours per week, developed multiple curriculums, written numerous student recommendation letters, counseled students outside of class, led a Bible study cadre, been a reader for senior projects.

Still, I’d been fired by mass email every June, rehired last minute each quarter, paid less than baristas earned at Starbucks, offered no office, meeting invitations, health insurance, or other benefits. And just before my surgery the college had informed me that a brand new PhD would take over my favorite writing class.

So I brooded: How could the college discard me? Had I done something wrong? Was I a terrible teacher? Was the problem my age? I was twice as old as my replacement, who wouldn’t need blepharoplasty till I was in my grave.

Curled up on the couch, I wept through my ointments and dressings, tears coursing into my ears. In my blinded and mummified state, I couldn’t shake my melancholic thoughts. So desperate was I to divert them, I flouted my surgeon’s orders; I picked up a book from the coffee table though he’d forbidden me to read for at least a week.

Straining to open my eyes wide enough to see, I turned to a meditation by the poet Scott Cairns, who wrote of hiking through Utah’s Arches National Park. Having gone only a little way along the trail, he was awed by the endless blue sky, enormous canyon spaces and tremendous arches and towers of incredibly red rock. He stopped to look down. A flash of vivid color caught his eye, held it, and he was startled to see a brilliant, deep magenta cactus flower on a prickly plant whose scarred, paddle-shaped appendages seemed more dead than alive. He wrote:

And then, having noticed that one flower…my eye was thereby led to another just beyond the first, and then just beyond the second, another…brilliant flowers dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see. They had been there all along, but until I had seen the first I’d been oblivious to their presence, blind to their broadcast beauty.

I lay the book aside, realized my eyes no longer ached that much and neither did my heart. For the first time in several days, I got up from the couch and began to look around. Out the window, in the park, was a boy flinging a Frisbee, his dog springing like a pogo to catch it in its teeth. On the front porch up against the door was a fragrant crate of oranges with a get-well note from a friend. And in my computer inbox were some emails that had come in during the week:

From a student who’d just finished my writing course:

I have loved taking the writing class with you this quarter. I loved seeing your smile every Tuesday and Thursday : ). I feel like I have grown a lot as a writer because of your class.

From a student I’d taught in high school:

I just completed my first script and turned it in! What a rush! Thank you for inspiring me all the way to graduate school!

From the head of the English department at the college where I teach:

I just wanted to let you know that, if you’d like to teach writing next quarter, there’s an afternoon slot that’s opened up. And I want to let you know right now that I will have 1-2 writing sections per quarter next year available, if you’d be interested in signing up for teaching then too.

A leaping dog, sweet oranges, encouraging emails. This trio of brilliant cactus blossoms had been within my field of peripheral vision, but I’d let my umbrage at life’s prickles completely blind me to them. Now my eyes were open. And I knew that if I kept on looking, I’d find still more flowers on the trail.