Women’s History Month — Anne Lamott

The thing I love about Anne Lamott is her brutal honesty. She admits her vulnerabilities, foibles, mistakes. She’s not shy to say who she is and she writes about all of the things I love — writing, family, nature!

She has written many books that I can relate to. Her latest book, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope is staring at me in the faculty library at school today. For some inspiration this morning, I leaf to a random page:

“Empathy begins when we realize how much alike we are. My focus on hate made me notice I’m too much like certain politicians…I, too, can be a blowhard, a hoarder, needing constant approval and acknowledgement, needing to feel powerful.”

– Lamott, Almost Everything

Then she talks about the Motley Old Us. How we, this ragtag collective, share “outdoor concerts, community hikes, birthday parties, worship services, street fairs.” The best things in life! Yes, I am one of her motley crew — in community. Yet I am also a solitary someone who needs approval and, at times, feels separate from the ‘in’ crowd and, even, the motley crew.

I remind myself to be ‘a friend among friends, a worker among workers.’ I think I’m paraphrasing from the AA Big Book. On a daily basis, this is all I can do — seek to connect and be a part of the communities in which I find myself. I want to bring healing and hope and radical unconditional positive regard for others — even people I hate, even people who do not yet know how much damage they have done .

This morning I’ve already connected on the crosstown bus with my neighbor and at the diner with the Greek manager. Both of these gentle people shared a meaningful loss with me and I felt a greater connection to them.

This push towards community and this respect for personal writing — these are reasons I like, admire, and, yes, am super jealous of Anne Lamott. She has written more than ten non-fiction books and seven non-fiction books and oh, yes, she has a Guggenheim Fellowship. I console myself — I have a lot too.

So welcome March — Women’s History Month — today we celebrate Anne Lamott. Incidentally, I’m going to celebrate this month by profiling a few of the many women I love — I am choosing living women — some women I know and some I wish I knew.

This is my living history month. I’m writing these quick moments in 10 to 20 minutes.

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Wonder and Awe and Deep Listening

I may look back on my childhood with wonder — idealizing the sunny days spent climbing trees. But let’s face it, childhood years can also be a struggle and a time we may need protection. As children, we do not yet have words or power to express or change our deep and unspoken worries. I know many children have a heart for environmental justice. They care about preserving nature.

I like to think of myself as a good listener. I hear the concerns of children in my job as a teacher. Teaching is my second (or third?) career. I love how uncensored children are – so hilarious, so much nonsense, so many emotions, so playful. I especially love how they can be brave at expressing unpopular opinions, worries, vulnerabilities, and honest emotions.

Sometimes there is cruelty. The Seventh Grade class at school just finished reading Lord of the Flies. Tough stuff.

I cannot stop wondering why and how people can be so cruel – my inclination is first, always, to help, to be kind.

I try not to judge anyone. In my rush to support students, I can be righteous or judgey. I want to remember that I am not always seeing the whole picture — from the leaders at the school or the students — I do not always know what else is going on in a person’s life. As an admitted know-it-all, I have a million good ideas for everyone else’s right actions.

I want to keep the focus on myself. Last weekend, my son and I were talking about how listening makes you feel loved. We wondered whether we truly listen to understand or just to wait for the pause in the conversation to get our words in.

Yesterday, after a long day, I walked home from work. It was about 5:15 pm. It was cold, yes, but the residue of a sunny day hung like a banner across the blue sky.

Whether I know it or realize it — spring is coming — buds on trees and green shoots are going to burst from the frozen ground. I hope that all people with worries, especially children, can hang on to the power of spring.

Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power. – William James

When we know that God loves us deeply and will always go on loving us, whoever we are and whatever we do, it becomes possible to expect no more of our fellow men and women than they are able to give, to forgive them generously when they have offended us, and always to respond to their hostility with love. By doing so we make visible a new way of being human and a new way of responding to our world problems. – Henri Nouwen

Adirondack 2019
Look forward to this new writing workshop. http://www.bootcamp4writers.com/register/adirondack-writer-retreat/

Alone Together

I like when we are alone together – it is one of the reasons that I love writing workshops. I set people on the path to write and then we write. Parallel play, we called it, when the kids were toddlers, doing their thing separately, happily, together in the room. Safe, solitary, together, alone.

Sometimes in art class, I feel all the other painters and I have dropped into a zone together. Like whoosh, we took an elevator down to a sacred place. We’re all this deep quiet, meditative place together, working and creating.

Any creative and collaborative venture can do this. Theater, too. When people are rehearsing their lines separately and then come together and one at a time, take their turns.

On Sunday, Chris and I, each played several parts in a reading of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas as a part of New York City’s Welsh Church. I played Mrs. Organ Morgan.

Mrs. Organ Morgan: But they’re two nice boys, I will say that, Fred Spit and Arthur. Sometimes I like Fred best and sometimes I like Arthur. Who do you like best, Organ?

Organ Morgan: Hm? Oh, Bach without any doubt. Bach every time for me…

This got a big laugh. But I certainly can relate to Mrs. Organ Morgan. Chatting away, happily, and then realizing that I have not been heard. Sometimes I feel alone in a marriage. And hey, tomorrow’s Valentine’s Day so I am offering a dollop of reality with all the day’s sweets: being married to someone with Parkinson’s — or any serious illness — can be lonely.

After the Under Milk Wood reading, an acquaintance of Chris’s patted him on the back. “You’ve still got it.” I hope that this made Chris feel good – that his Parkinson’s hasn’t ended his acting career. While I can complain about my loneliness, let’s face it, he’s the one who really got the raw deal.

Back on the bright side: I dig creating theater for the communal and solitary aspects of it. Everyone buys into a shared imaginative scenario. There’s magic in suspending disbelief. To me, it’s therapeutic to drift off into a dream-like world.

All creativity and making things is therapeutic. I like to make art, make friends, make dinner, simply make.

Lately, I have felt a new blossoming — thinking about possibilities for creative living and working.

Under Milk Wood takes place in an imaginary Welsh village Llareggub, which comes from ‘Bugger All’ backwards.

Thought for the day:

We are not wholly bad or good, who live our lives under Milk Wood – prayer of the Reverend Eli Jenkins in Under Milk Wood.

Positive Self Regard

What you see is what you get. If you look for signs that you are disliked, you will find them. If you look for signs that you are loved, you will find them too. I believe this.

But this rugged self determinism doesn’t really take into account the reality that, in certain environments, there are truly biases working against you and, yes, biases, too, working in your favor. You do not even know what you’ve got or don’t have going for you. We discussed this the other night in a book club around the topics of hidden bias presented in Blindspot by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald.

I encourage myself through positive self talk in my journals — I first learned how to do this, I think, when I read Gilda Radner’s book, It’s Always Something. She conducts a conversation with her childhood self at the end of the memoir. I have always believed there are many personalities within one person. This is why I love the theater, I guess.

My encouraging self talk is a way to drive out the nagging self doubt. We all have doubts. I always remember that even the pilot Sully who made the heroic landing feels he could’ve done more. Than what? Landing his plane on water? The Hudson River with its smooth runway caught his plane like a net ten years ago.

Yesterday in my watercolor class at the Art Students League, I was totally doubtful about my work as a fine artist. All of my watercolor sketches were spread across one wall for everyone to see. I felt like hiding under a bushel.

Later, I overheard two women talking — one was saying she would never be very good. The other said, ‘If you didn’t believe you could get better, maybe you’d stop trying.’ We are always on road to perfection. We have never arrived.

Yes. We need to encourage ourselves through positive self talk. But we also need to know we are moving towards becoming better. And there are forces working for and against us. The main point is to never quit.

Give yourself a break from self doubt.

What you are must always displease you if you are to accomplish that which you are not. – St. Augustine

Why Write?

I write to make sense of the world. I write because I am on the hunt to find meaning.

I write because I worry and need to reassure myself.

I write to make lists and tell myself to do tasks.

Sometimes I wonder if a woman should write as much as I do. I wonder if someone took away my keyboard — Would they tell me to get out there and get living? For me, living is writing. And writing is living. Writing is as essential as breathing. As dreaming.

Our dreams are our brains telling us stories. We need stories. We — I — write through the night.

The other night, I had a dream that I was on my phone, texting or scrolling. Scrolling or texting. I woke, feeling like I’d been cheated — you should not be on the phone when you are dreaming or writing.

Although my one writing friend is working on / writing a novel on his phone. I don’t know how the project’s going. He was swallowed into his phone and no one’s seen him for months. Maybe he will come back in a dream. Or in my writing. Like now.

When I ask myself, Why write? It is so that I, Ishmael, do not become swallowed into the big belly of the beast.

I write to find my way out of the whale.

I write my way in and my way out.

I wrote this Why I Write on 750words.com I don’t write every day, but I like looking back at what I’ve written. I like checking the boxes.

The Gifts of Growing Older at Work

Teaching is seen as a young person’s game — maybe it’s the sheer physicality of it — the bending down and looking at papers on short desks or stooping to have eye-to-eye conversations with rugrats.

Despite a possibly dwindling supply of energy as teachers dash between classrooms, older teachers bring truly needed gifts to schools. While many school administrators might be attracted to the enthusiasm and malleability (is that okay to say?) of young people, older people still have the zip and a growth mindset, as well as the patience and wisdom, of their younger colleagues.

Older people may also bring a larger connection or network of friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, having spent years building up their rolodexes, filofaxes, and then, moving all those hard copy contacts to their LinkedIn sites. And of course, the best PR for any school or non-profit is word of mouth. If a school or biz wants a good rap, give the older people in their employ somethings to brag about. Let them brag about the awesome intergenerational mix of employees. It’s so good for teachers to model for their students how older and younger teachers work together and learn from one another — true examples of character-building and growth mindsets, attributes we all love to see in one another.

Total generalization here — but it seems to me that people over 55 are slower to anger. Working with kids requires a ton of patience and a great sense of humor. These are some of the reasons I love my second career of teaching.

Sadly, one former older teacher colleague has said that he stopped learning some of the lower school and younger teachers’ names because they come and go so quickly. I believe that older teachers stay longer, have more loyalty.

Not that anyone asked, but I would advise all teachers to:

  1. Learn each others’ names
  2. Keep up with their professional reading
  3. Stay positive about the contributions of all faculty, seasoned and fresh
  4. Make friendships across generational lines
  5. Realize that teachers of all ages can master tech in the classroom
I photographed this radiant couple a while ago at my favorite cafe, Margot Patisserie, on the Upper West Side. It’s true — everyone looks beautiful when they smile. Especially old people.

Was inspired to write this after reading the Sunday NYTimes interview with the founder of Encore.org

“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
Maya Angelou

Successful Aging and Your Brain (on Parkinson’s)

Last night Chris and I attended a fun JCC Parkinson’s Holiday Party. After rounds of singing and before the raffle, music therapist Barbara Yahr, and Parksinson’s docs Alessandro DiRocco and Rebecca Gilbert spoke about ways to successfully grow older with the disease.

Here are four take-aways — and these apply to everyone:
1. Get more social. Apathy is a real problem for people with Parkinson’s (and thus, their families), because the dopamine, the reward mechanism in the brain, dwindles. To combat this, make sure that you’re getting out and continuing to wire new neuron pathways through interesting conversations and activities. Change your routine. Don’t do what you’ve always done.
2. Eat well. Best foods for Parkinson’s? They really don’t know. Someone from the audience recommended non-inflammatory foods, but the doctors on the panel could not confirm that this was the optimal diet. There was some consensus that the Mediterranean Diet works well for everyone as we age.
3. Be active. What’s the best kind of exercise? The one that you do! If you have Parkinson’s, exercising for 45 minutes six days a week will likely stave off the steady decline.
4. Make a joyful noise. Music helps. Anecdotally, Yahr spoke about the magical powers of music — a way to communicate when speaking fails. And the docs emphasized that any way of making or participating in artistic endeavors — fine arts of performance arts — is good for the brain.

Caroline Kohles
Caroline Kohles: Chris always says she should receive a genius grant. One of the amazing JCC Parkinson’s teachers, Caroline sparks health through exercise and a growth mindset in her NIA class. (photo courtesy of NIANow.)

So, as the moderator of the panel and Chris’s great friend and brilliant teacher Caroline Kohles summed it all up: “Keep a beginners’ mind.”

Keep growing mentally because the brain, at any age, has neuroplasticity. Instead of a fixed mindset, a growth mindset, built on a foundation of persistence, hard work and optimism, provides maximum health benefits.