Sweating the Small Stuff in 2013

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Steps__Halton_Castle__Runcorn__Cheshire_1984Sometimes it’s easy to see the bad things that knock me on my knees or the good things that are so tremendous I don’t feel like I could ever compare. I am not talking about natural events out of our control. I’m talking about what humans are doing to make each others’ lives better or worse.

Knock out bad stuff includes mass shootings, holocausts, cruel dictators and kidnappers who keep people imprisoned for years.

People who make me feel inadequate include Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa and their sweeping acts of the best of humanity.

But recently one of my favorite kid lit authors, Peg Kehret responded to the Sandy Hook shooting in a way that made me wonder if the smaller things matter more than I give them credit for:

“Whenever something bad happens, I try to put some good back into the world. My gestures are small, but done with love. Nothing any of us can do will bring back the children and teachers who were killed today in Connecticut but if each person does an act of kindness tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, we will reclaim a tiny fraction of what was taken from us all.”

In my conversations with my friend and pastor Shirley DeLarme, she said that the small choices build up to make a big difference. She noticed we often focus on big life decisions when the tiny choices we make about how we spend our day matter more than if we are able to feed the world.  I’ve often wondered what tiny choices people have made that led them to do very hurtful things.  For myself, I  can see that just allowing myself to dwell on little hurts makes a big impact. When I replay a painful discussion over and over in my mind, I build a ‘case’ against the person I’m upset with and end up bringing myself to dark places I don’t want to stay in.

I’ve also seen how small choices improved lives in the past few months.

Recently, I asked the people of my church to help a couple students and felt awed by the response I got. A lot of people made small choices to help and it made a big difference. It will make a big difference to my students, and it also made a big difference to me and my view of the world.

In September, one of my dearest friends passed away. On the morning he had died, I went to see his wife Ruth with my 2 year old son. As she stood still in shock from losing her husband of over 50 years, my little boy began to play with a crazy kitchy singing fish. The goofy thing belted out Bobby McFerrin tunes and Quinton giggled. The corners of Ruth’s mouth went up and a small sliver of sunshine made its way through in the form of toddler’s joy. We couldn’t stop her husband Rich from dying. But we could offer a small piece of laughter.

Even the big decisions come after we’ve made many tiny choices. When my husband and I decided to buy a new house, it was after hours of talking to our families, driving through neighborhoods on our time off and doing a thousand tiny things to our first house to get it ready to sell.

So I am dedicating my 2013 to the small stuff. The small stuff that brings big rewards in the kindness I can offer to others and to my own self. I hope my actions will bring back what Peg Kehret described and I hope that sweating the small stuff makes the world a better place. I know that I can manage the small stuff anyway. And that’s got to make a difference – more than if I  let myself feel doomed by the evil deeds or dwell on how I don’t compare to the saints.

My Russian speaking students have a saying I have always adored: шаг за шагом (shchak za shchagom). It’s said with all of those consonant combinations that I adore about Russian. It means ‘step by step,’ and it’s been ringing in my head lately. Perhaps this is again related to Peg Kehret and her book Small Steps about how she overcame polio as a child. Little things can become life changing.

May you all find your own small steps.

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Goals – What to Do If You are Rather Sick of Them

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In the motivational and educational world, people babble on about writing goals. I ask my students to think about their goals. I ask them to focus on success in their goals and picture what success looks like. We fill out papers that the state tells us we must and I try to infuse the classroom with the idea that they are capable of learning a language that sometimes swamps us.

I do the same for myself, especially in writing, Motivating myself has been one of the most challenging  and rewarding parts of the craft. No one cares if I write every morning or surf Facebook for 2 hours. I don’t get paid to do this (not that I wouldn’t some day like to) and my mother recently said, “I can’t believe you do that with everything else.” She’s impressed but those kinds of comments make my doubting brain wonder if I’m not attempting the impossible.

In order to keep myself moving, I’ve created numerous to do lists, schedules and calendars. Some of them have been creative, some are simple lists in my spiral notebook.

I’ve been doing this for years now and noticed I don’t meet many of the goals I’ve set. The same thing happens for my students when we look at their test scores at the end of the quarter. It is more than a little discouraging and this is where the ‘I’m rather sick of goals’ part of the post comes in. I’m happy to report that the month after that novel draft is pulling me up from utter goal exhaustion. Here is what I’ve discovered.

Keep Goals Small and Gentle and Honor Thy Breaks

This month, I started the Artist’s Way. I have done the morning pages before and quit many years ago because I was ever so tired of listening to myself complain. I know. Morning pages are for that. But I was tired of it. Nauseated by it.

When I started again, I discovered something about my goals from the pages and from Julia Cameron’s practices. One of her Rules of the Road is to set small and gentle goals. Now, writing a novel in a month was not a small, gentle goal and I got a lot out of it but, it occurred to me that NaNo is one month. That’s the Mo in the whole deal. So….it’s fine to be ambitious but then I need a break. Setting ambitious goals doesn’t work for months on end without a pause to catch my breath.

Tracy Barrett, an author with 19 published books, takes Tuesdays off. A CNN article says kindergarteners in a study learned better when they took breaks. Breaks matter.

It also matters when I set goals that I achieve. These past few weeks I’ve been setting goals that I can achieve rather than burdening my schedule with more than I can reasonable do. Sometimes it feels strange at night to think that I’ve actually done what I set out to accomplish. But it’s a good kind of strange.

Remember to Look Back in Order to Endlessly Move Forward

I also discovered the power of a rear view mirror in the space between I carved out this month. I was pleasantly surprised to see all that I’d done. Here’ s the list:

  • Got short pieces published in 3 publications (OK, they weren’t paid. I am still pleased I managed them)
  • Made 15 submissions
  • Got three encouraging personal notes from three different editors
  • Started and maintained this blog
  • Started and maintained a blog for my ESL classes
  • Maintained a blog for my spiritual writing group
  • Researched my novel
  • Wrote almost every day
  • WROTE THE FIRST DRAFT OF MY SECOND NOVEL (still in shock about this one, honestly)

This week, I’ll be making goals for my next year. Doing that becomes much easier when I have a sense that all of that goal setting might actually lead to something. That it did actually lead to something this year.

Make Connections

ESL instructor Larry Ferlazzo sites a study here from Dominican University that shows the dramatic impact of having a person to check in with. Those with a friend who cares and says so achieved 76 percent of their goals. The numbers for those without someone who cared fell below 50 percent of their goals achieved.

Jody Casella, an author I met online this year, tells how having another writer to check in with kept her going in the crucial years before her book deal in her own review of the year.

While I don’t yet have one person to check in with, I’ve noticed that even small connections with other authors make a big difference to me. Attending writer meetings, small groups, book signings and even the online friends I’ve made all pull me into my goals. It’s also a curious and wonderful slice of life to notice that helping others makes my own efforts easier.

Remember the breaks, remember to keep the goals something you can do, remember to look back for a moment, and remember your friends. This is the medicine I would prescribe if you are as sick of goals as I have been. I wish you luck in the new year, whatever your dreams may be.

The Book Thief – A Review

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I listened to THE BOOK THIEF by Marcus Zusak in the audio book format read by Alan Corduner. Set in Nazi Germany, it’s a somehow new twist on the same tale of Germans living in a repressive regime, sometimes going along and sometimes rebelling against the fascism and murder.  Here are the things I adored about the book:

1. The Narrator

I loved Death as the narrator and Cordurner as the voice I heard over my car stereo. Cordurner did an excellent job portraying the both Death and the characters in the novel. I pictured the dark figure clearly when he spoke as the Reaper and wasn’t bothered when he used a higher pitched voice for the young girl.

2. The German

Once upon a time I spoke German and it was delightful to listen to the language. Sometimes I wished it weren’t translated, though, so I could revel in knowing that ‘spinnst du’ means ‘are you crazy?’ I’m sure, however, that the average English reader doesn’t mind the translations.

3. The Words

Zusak teetered on overworking his language but I forgave him because so much of he wrote amazed me. Death is especially fascinated with colors and the sky. Zusak compares skies to chocolate and describes a kid’s soccer game with poetry that melds into prose.

4. The Foster Parents

I once was a foster mother. It thrilled me to see foster parents handled as loving humans rather than as the ogres of most stories and flashy news articles.

5. The Way Zusak Handled Tragedy

I don’t go in for tragedy. I am pulled to feel good books even when the author has to strain to give me a good ending. I nearly quit TBK in the beginning because Zusak smashed multiple bad things into the beginning. Liesel’s brother dies and her mother leaves her with foster parents in the first few pages. A librarian encouraged me to push on (in another life I will be a heroic librarian, too). I am glad I did because I soon fell in love with the other people just as Liesel did. I can even forgive Zusak for the necessary tragedy at the very end because the story in the middle will stay with me in marvelous ways.

Here’s a fan made trailer that captures much of the book’s essence in case you are interested in a snazzy synopsis:

The Week after NaNo

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In the days and now a week after NaNoWriMo, I’ve set the novel almost completely aside. I say almost because I’d be fibbing if I said it wasn’t on my mind. It lurks back there and pesters me with ideas about how it could be better. It also growls sometimes about how painful it will be in January when I sit to read through it. And sometimes it glows with the thought of how much I enjoy revising compared to the process of that first draft whenever I work on my shorter pieces.

I’ve got a plan for this month, though, to keep the novel in the box and using it’s ‘inside voice’ when it nags at me.  The plan goes something like this:

1. Find small projects to write that I can draft and finish in under a week. This is refreshing to say the least.

2. Revisit the submissions I have floating out there to see if they need sending to new homes or if I should put them in the ‘for practice’ file.

3. Draft writing goals for 2013.

4. Spend some time with Julia Cameron and her Artist’s Way again. I did this once many years ago and fell on my face. The book’s been nagging at me, however, through friends and other coincidences. So I’m back at the morning pages and not hating them. In fact, they are becoming a friend, those 3 pages. Go figure.

So far the plan is working. The novel is behaving itself while it waits for me to return, and I am enjoying the space between wild write-a-novel-in-a-month and revision.