The Awful Lovely Difference Between Dreams and Reality

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When I was about 12 I longed for a silk jacket like the ones on the movie Grease. In my dreams, it was pink with white stitching on the back and made me look like a Pink Lady.

I remember waiting a long time for my parents to buy it for me, but it probably wasn’t that long. It was probably only a few months until my birthday.

When I got it, I loved it just like I’d imagined. And then I rode my bicycle with the jacket wrapped around my waist, letting it trail down next to the spokes. The jacket I longed for caught in the circling wheels and was never quite the same after that. My vision of the lovely silk now had black grease marks.

Most everything I’ve ever wanted didn’t turn out as I expected. In some ways my dreams turn out worse in reality and, in other ways, better than I ever could have imagined.

For some time now I’ve been dreaming of getting paid for a piece of writing.

My vision of getting the ‘we will pay you’ mail looked like a quiet moment by myself with a neatly arranged kitchen and no family anywhere around. Don’t ask me why. I guess I just wanted the peace to enjoy the moment. In my vision, I would clutch the papers to my chest and the papers would say something like: “Your writing is fabulous. We love you.”

And then I would close my eyes and send a prayer of thanks.

Reality looked something like this:

I picked up the mail before unstrapping my 2 year old from his car seat and helping him into the house while lugging my purse, a bag full of my lunch leftovers, and Quinton’s sleeping blanket.

My husband was already home. In the pile of mail, I saw the manila envelope from the magazine Alive Now, and wondered if it was another rejection. I had sent a short poem titled ‘The Source’ to the publisher several months ago.

Before I could open it, I got in the house and everything was in a state of pandemonium. My 13 year old needed me to sign a form for his school. My 2 year old entered whine mode and was doing laps around my legs for some reason while my husband was chattering on about our plans for the evening. I told my family they needed to give me a second.

“I’m having a moment,” I said.

Which worked for the 13 year old and husband, so then I only had to think around the 2 year old’s noisy lap running. I opened the manila envelope and skimmed the letter to find the congratulations and the dollar amount.

And then it all got better than my lonely clutching the papers to my chest scene. My family gave me hugs and high fives and shared my joy.

Later I struggled with filling out the contract and tax papers that I had never visualized.

But, in spite of scary tax forms and household pandemonium, I like to visualize my dreams. I often get what I have been dreaming of, and I do believe that visualizing helps this happen. Something powerful and magic pulls me toward what I focus on.

This magic does not mean that what I get looks exactly what I’ve envisioned. Most of the time it doesn’t. Most of the time it’s messy and irritating in ways I never imagined and also deeply satisfying in ways that never occurred to me. So while I am careful what I wish for, I keep right on wishing. And not too carefully, either. I’ve learned that unexpected surprises make for good times. Every so often the unexpected looks like a pink jacket in spokes, but most of the time it looks like high fives and hugs.

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.

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.