Wednesday Wonders: How to Find a Whale — Almost

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When we first got on the ferry on our way to an island last week, I told my sons to look closely for whales. I had never yet seen one in the wild and always wanted to catch a glimpse. Maybe, I thought, today would be the day. They hang out in the waters near Whidbey, after all.
We looked on the way out. No luck.
On the way back, Quinton was dancing the dance of an exhausted five year old on the sun deck where he couldn’t crash into anyone or disturb others with his troubles. That’s when I felt the boat cut its engines and wondered what was up.
The captain made an announcement. A minke whale was right off the port bow. He was slowing to give the animal time to pass.
We ran to the front of the boat and scanned the waters with many other passengers running to the front deck, including my teenager. No whale. The captain said the whale had moved to starboard. We looked out that side.
No whale.
I guess captains have a much better view from where they sit, and I’m grateful he could see well enough to slow down.
I stared for a long time at the water hoping the whale would come up one more time but, like the dad next to me said, “Those guys can hold their breath for a long time.”
And that’s the closest I’ve ever come to seeing a whale in the wild.
Maybe next time.
May you find whales or at least have a grand time running down the deck to look-
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Other wonders:

A recycled bit on the wonder series:

I love the way writing and other art forms open my eyes to the surprises around me in my everyday life. Many of these wonders will also be in my Instagram account since I discovered the joy of that program during an advent photo project.

I collect these surprises like little rocks in a kid’s pocket. I may use them in a story. I may not. Either way, life gets a little brighter when I take the time to notice.

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Wednesday Wonders: The Magic Wand To Do List

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A few February  lists

Grandma Z made lists. I found lists in her cupboards, lists on her refrigerator, lists in her bible, and lists in her picnic baskets. She once told me she loved writing things down because she was so forgetful. Making the lists helped her stay organized.

When it comes to lists, I am a lot like my grandmother.

I make lists at work of all the things I need to do for the day.

My husband and I make a list each time one of us goes to the grocery store and attach our coupons to save money.

I make lists before I pack to keep my brain from wandering when I am gathering things while the kids run around in circles, the dog barks, the bird hollers and the cats do their best to trip me.

And I make lists for my writing.

Recently, though, I discovered a magic way to use my lists to get the work done without pushing myself to do the things on it.

I know this sounds unbelievable but hear me out.

Last year, I took a Massive Online Open Course called Learning How to Learn with Professor Barbara Oakley from Oakland University. I took it to help my beleaguered nursing students handle their intense course load but, as always with teaching, I ended up learning something from the experience.

And the best thing I learned was how to make lists that get done on their own.

Always before, I made my lists first thing in the morning. I did this partly to focus myself before I started work, but (here’s the truth) I also made the lists to avoid doing the work.

This is because getting up at 4:30 in the morning and jumping into writing is super hard — or at least it used to be.

Professor Oakley and the neurologist Terrance Sejnowskii recommended making my list the night before. They suggested that my subconscious brain might even start working on the list while I slept to get me moving on it the next day.

I thought this might be hooey but decided it couldn’t hurt to try it.

To my amazement, it worked.

Each night I sit down with my planner and make a list for the next day. I then do other woo woo things with my list like put my hand over it and say a small prayer that the work might be done through me and that I might know grace and peace while I do it. (I made that part up myself. The professors said nothing about talking to my list.)

I always mix up my list so it will not be drudgery. (The professors suggested this one.) I add things like walks, rest, and play. If I am having an especially hard time at work or with some other situation I will add ‘with joy’ to what I want to do.

‘Joy in meetings’ was on my list last week, for example. I distinctly remember having some joy in those meetings, too.

If I have a thorny writing problem, I’ll get specific in my list about what I want to fix.

Most of the time, I don’t even need to look at my list in the morning. I know what’s on it and dive right into it after feeding the herd and fixing my tea.

And then at night I look at my list from the day and check off what I’ve done before making the list for the next day. I never punish myself for what didn’t get done. Instead, I draw parentheses around the unfinished things and consider if I want to add them to the next day or not.

I always take a moment to feel good about the things that did get done. I believe the list likes this and is more likely to help me the next day if I don’t beat it up.

Often I discover I have done things I didn’t even remember were on my list to do.

It’s like the list finishes itself.

Or like my subconscious actually does work on how I will get those things done while I sleep.

Or like the list is a magic wand I wave at night towards the next day.

I don’t know for sure. But I know it works.

Give it a try if you want to see for yourself.

And then let me know how it goes. I would love to hear.

May you make friends with fairy godmother lists-

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Extra wonders:

A recycled bit on the wonder series:

I love the way writing and other art forms open my eyes to the surprises around me in my everyday life. Many of these wonders will also be in my Instagram account since I discovered the joy of that program during an advent photo project.

I collect these surprises like little rocks in a kid’s pocket. I may use them in a story. I may not. Either way, life gets a little brighter when I take the time to notice.

Wednesday Wonders: Finding Help When Art Scares You Silly

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Clarinetists with warm-looking fingers

Thursday night I was driving down to the church when I realized my fingers were freezing, my heart was beating, and my mind kept thinking of all the ways I was going to embarrass myself.

I wasn’t headed to a solo performance with my clarinet. It was the rehearsal with the choir.

The music I was playing for Lent only had one short run. The key signature wasn’t difficult, but the time signatures changed from 4/4 to 3/4 to 6/4 to 2/2. They changed repeatedly from measure to measure, even during my rests in places where I didn’t have them marked in my transposed version. I had to rely on the director to see when to play my notes on the entrances.

For those who don’t read music, imagine a dance where the rhythm keeps changing and everyone will see your neon tap shoes stomp on your partner’s toes if you get the count wrong.

The whole thing nearly gave me hives.

And I didn’t feel any better after we practiced together.

The rehearsal ended with me totally flubbing the last notes and everyone thanking me for agreeing to play for the church in three days.

I felt like they thought I was a lost cause, but they weren’t going to worry too much. It was just a regular Sunday, not Easter, after all.

I tried several mental tricks to calm myself, many of them things that I tell others when they are stressed out.

  • I took deep breaths.
  • I thought of other times when I had been successful.
  • I reminded myself that the people listening loved me and would still love me even if I played all the wrong notes and came in after the song was over. My family might even love me more out of sympathy.

These things helped a little. I looked for more ways to reassure myself.

  • I reached out to the pianist and begged her to help me since I could not practice the timing alone. (Miki agreed. She is such a blessing.)
  • I imagined feeling calm and successful after the piece was over.
  • I asked my dear friend Ruth to pray for my peace of mind.

These things helped more but not enough. My fingers were still so cold I could hardly work the keys on my instrument. (Cold fingers are one of my stress reactions. They are not helpful.)

Finally, as I was sitting through the beginning of the service, waiting an eternity to stand in front of the crowd, I thought of a writing idea I use when the words get mired in fear.

I told the song that if she wanted to come out of me, she was going to have to do some of the work because I wasn’t sure I could do it myself. I even got a little snotty with her because I was feeling so stressed about my potential public humiliation. (Never mind that I had agreed to play and, on some level, deeply wanted to do it.)

I had often talked to my stories this way but I had never tried it before with a song.

I instantly felt calmer. It was almost like the song had just been waiting for me to ask.

Ten minutes later I walked in front of the pews and played. I made a few small mistakes but came in at all the right places in the right tempo. Or maybe Lenten Song moved through me and managed her own entrances.

Either way, I loved the peace I found by talking back to my art.

It’s a little woo-woo, I grant you. But the older I get, the more woo-woo the the best parts of life feel to me.

I didn’t make this up myself, by the way. I got the idea from Elizabeth Gilbert’s first Ted Talk and from her book Big Magic.

I’m beginning to think that this sort of sass might work for any great endeavor we try.

Want to finish a degree? Take the classes, study hard, and then tell the degree that if it wants you to earn it, it will have to step up.

Want to raise children? Change the diapers, set limits, hug them often and get serious with the universe, explaining that you are going to need help with that insanely impossible task.

Want more peace in the world? Volunteer, be kind to others especially when they cut you off in traffic, and then tell the world that this is way too big of a task. Insist that you are going to need help to see what to do and how to get it done. A lot of help.

Get snappy with the degree, the universe, or the world. This is key. Maybe talking back shows you are not kidding around. I don’t know. I just know it works for me.

And then relax. The song, the degree, the grown children and the world might surprise you with the impossible things you can do.

They might even surprise you like “Lenten Song” surprised me with the exact right timing so that the people in front of me could hear the song the way she wanted to be heard.

May you rest in the help you can find when you need it-

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Here’s the “Lenten Song” written by Mark Hayes and the solo played by a flute.

And a few other wonders from my week:

A recycled bit on the wonder series:

I love the way writing and other art forms open my eyes to the surprises around me in my everyday life. Many of these wonders will also be in my Instagram account since I discovered the joy of that program during an advent photo project.

I collect these surprises like little rocks in a kid’s pocket. I may use them in a story. I may not. Either way, life gets a little brighter when I take the time to notice.

Wednesday Wonders: When Your Art is Worth Saving

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By Sydney Zylstra (retrieved from the attic in 2011)

“You know all those paintings your mother makes and then throws out?”

My sister and I nodded as my dad said this. We knew.

“Well, I pulled a few out of the garbage and stuck them up in the attic. Remember to get them out of there when I die so she doesn’t toss them.”

I understand why my mother wanted to throw those beautiful pastels away. It helped her feel free to make mistakes and go on to create more when she knew she didn’t have to keep or share what she created.

She probably felt something like Molly in this clip Jody Casella shared with me recently:

I also get why my dad didn’t want to let them go. He couldn’t see her mistakes. He only saw a picture worth saving — something he didn’t want in the trash even after he died.

I am drawn to that video of Molly and the memory of my dad stashing away my mom’s art. And I’m happy to say I no longer feel like dipping my manuscript in alcohol and setting it on fire over a gas burner. 

Instead, I keep this mantra by James Scott Bell posted near my computer screen:

“It can be fixed.”

That helps enormously when the mean voice in my head chatters on about all that is wrong even as I work to make it better.

And I’m glad Dad saved the pastels. A year or so after he died, my mom found them on my wall and stopped, looking them over for a slow minute.

I held my breath, praying I would not lose my treasures.

She surprised me by insisting they needed a coat of sealant to protect the surface. She then took them down and returned them to me, never suggesting that I throw them away.

Those canvases covered in flowers still hang in my hallway, reminding me to look at what’s worth keeping even when, at first, I might not think my characters have led me down the right path. 

May you know the joy of creating and the power of saving your work-

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Extra wonders:

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Seattle waterways before the Ballard Locks and the ship canal connected the lakes to the sound.

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My book and I loved this trip to see my Seattle family and visit the locks. So much to research for us here!

A recycled bit on the wonder series:

I love the way writing and other art forms open my eyes to the surprises around me in my everyday life. Many of these wonders will also be in my Instagram account since I discovered the joy of that program during an advent photo project.

I collect these surprises like little rocks in a kid’s pocket. I may use them in a story. I may not. Either way, life gets a little brighter when I take the time to notice.

Wednesday Wonders:What if Superman Couldn’t Take it Anymore?

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On Monday, I hobbled into my teaching job. Every other step, pain zipped though the right side of my hip and forced me into a jerking sort of movement just short of a collapse. I could not keep my face straight or look people in the eyes until it eased up again.

Over and over I heard the words: “Are you okay?”

And, because I like honest answers to this question, I said, “No.” Over and over.

The day before, I had been feeling so much better I thought I could go for a glorious forty five minute walk on a blustery day with an eagle soaring above me and later surprising me by flying right in front of me.

I don’t like taking long breaks.

Short breaks are lovely but breaks that last more than a few days get on my nerves. My hip has been teaching me that, although I might feel healed after one physical therapy treatment, this does not mean I can go on an intense walk up hills.

The same sort of thing happens with my writing.

After meeting my deadlines I made everything stop. I hadn’t taken a single day off from writing in weeks and, like I wrote earlier, I needed time to play with paints and let my mind wander away from my checklists. I gave myself a week to leave the words behind.

I made it four days before I couldn’t take it anymore and ached for my pen and keyboard.

 

Shortly after that (and before my disastrous walk), I wrote this piece on Superman in an exercise I found in Writer to Writer: From Think to Ink by Gail Carson Levine.

Superman Calls It Quits

It was the look in her eyes that first made me snap. Even my cat didn’t glare at me with that much disdain when I forgot to buy his food after a busy day pretending to be Clark Kent.

“You could have come a bit sooner, you know.” She stood now, brushing herself off and putting a hand out to keep me at arm’s length.

As I felt the sting of her words, I couldn’t help but notice how perfect her face was. Everything about her features was symmetrical — her lips looked like something an anime artist would draw. Seeing her filled me with an ache that made me want to turn away. Or do anything for her.  Even jump to the top of the burning bridge where Lex Luther had put her about an hour ago.

Which is what got me into this mess to begin with.

“I needed you to get me off that bridge right away. And you couldn’t even manage to save me without tearing my dress on the trusses.” She picked up the flimsy thing around her legs and waved it to show me the rip in the fabric. Apparently, she wore it to dinner with Luther after he’d bribed her with the promise of a good story.

She was right, of course. I didn’t really know how this rescue work was supposed to go. I’d just started a few months ago with little experience battling bad guys or saving people who got themselves into peril.

I nodded, knowing I should say something. Anything. But nothing was coming to me. My Super Tongue was stuck to the roof of my Super Mouth and the man of steel was no match for the wrath of this woman who was late for her next appointment.

She gave me one last exasperated look, threw her hair back, and climbed down off the rock where I set her earlier, underestimating my speed and causing her to turn her ankle.

I watched her struggle on her own and slip into the mud as she huffed along and knew better than to offer help again.

Right then I decided  to quit. Obviously, I was not cut out for hero work and damsels would be better off without me.

 

Maybe the poor guy needed to take a break. And not just a short one. Superman and I will keep working on it and taking shorter walks for now.

May you find the rest you need-

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A recycled bit on the wonder series:

I love the way writing and other art forms open my eyes to the surprises around me in my everyday life. Many of these wonders will also be in my Instagram account since I discovered the joy of that program during an advent photo project.

I collect these surprises like little rocks in a kid’s pocket. I may use them in a story. I may not. Either way, life gets a little brighter when I take the time to notice.