What I Learned and What Next?

I’ve spent this last month writing every day about creativity. Even when I didn’t feel like it (and I knew that would happen), I did it.

The first few days flew by in a flutter of enthusiasm and newness and then, there was the sameness, the place of not having anything new to say or retreading where I had tread before. Looking to hone my message of hope in some new-fangled way? Boring!

Then, I felt my own resentment for taking on something a little too large. And futile — what difference does my writing make any way?

How can I, someone so inconsequential, turn the axis of this country, governed today by the swamp of greed and fear, to shape the narrative into a story — my story, the country’s story — of overcoming hatred with love? Of somehow looking for and, occasionally, finding a pathway to grit. To grace. To forgiveness.

To make compassion the bottom line of life, to be open and vulnerable to others, to make community life the focus, and to let prayer be the breath of your life – that requires a willingness to tear down the countless walls that we have erected between ourselves and others in order to maintain our safe isolation. This is a lifelong and arduous spiritual battle because while tearing down walls with one hand, we build new ones with the other. After I had left the university and chosen a life in the community, I realized that, even in community, there are numerous ways to play the controlling games of individualism. Indeed, true conversion asks for a lot more than a change of place. It asks for a change of heart. – Henri J. Nouwen

I’ve drawn inspiration from the heroes who came before me.

So, this month, I’ve learned to write even when I didn’t feel like writing. To speak even when it would’ve been more judicious to stay quiet. To get quiet and listen to the still, small voice within.

I’ve learned that I don’t have to change the whole world, just myself. And if my writing moves the needle, even a fraction of an inch, towards more compassion, more self-empathy, more kindness, that’s good enough.

Still. I want more. Here are five possible next steps for next month:

More NaNoWriMo — national novel writing month. While I have loved joining this collective writing community and have done so in past years, I hesitate to produce a novel in a month from scratch. I’d love, even more, to revise past efforts at my novel-writing madness. I have many half-baked novels, wedged into the back of an overstuffed file cabinet. I’d like to unearth and revise these more than I’d like to begin something new. (And to clean out my file cabinet.) I am trying to strategize on how I can use the resources of NaNoWriMo for my own dastardly purposes. Rather than writing some new 50,000 words whole cloth, why not rework my old 50,000-word stories? I can still join the meet-ups and the timed writing opportunities, I just might not earn the badge.

More polished essays — I have a dozen, crafted essays about our political climate from my own humorous point of view to submit to places for publication. I would like to be more consistent with sending out my essays and getting them published.

More fitness — since my shoulder surgery, I’ve found I’m not as physically active as I was last spring. I really want to be more consistent with working out. Yes, citibiking to and from work is better than catching a Via, however, it’s still not enough. When I bike, I coast. When I work out at the gym or go for a long walk or short run, I get my heart rate pumping. This reminds me: support me as I undertake the 5K fundraiser for United Methodist Women. And I am probably going to run a 5K Turkey Trot in Chicago as well.

More workshops — I’ve got a little idea cooking on my back burner. A neighbor who’s taken my writing workshop literally stopped me on the street to suggest that I offer a class on writing to overcome and heal from sexual abuse, assault, and harassment. So, this is a goal for the month of November — to get this workshop on the calendar and promote it so we get a healthy enrollment. And we will all begin to heal the rape culture in which we live. I’d also like to plan some spring get-away writing workshop.

More travel — There is nothing like travel to open the mind and fill the heart.

So that’s it — continue to fill your days with creativity and hope. Believe that change for the good is always possible.



Beautiful Boy and Beautiful Fall

This is what love is and what love does too. Was thinking of this last night when I watched Beautiful Boy at the Directors Guild. I have a special place in my heart for movies about recovery. I am always curious as to how AA and Alanon meetings are depicted in films. And is the preceding drug addiction or alcoholism or family disease glamorized at all?

One new twist in this movie is that the father’s worry over one child seemed to rob him of love for his other children. The younger children are merely props. Growing up in a big family, we five children had a radar for this kind of fairness among children. Any Coudal child that was getting any special treatment — say, you wanted to stay home from school because you were sick? — the others would whine, “you’re not sick! you’re faking it?” (Ugh, I’m sickened by the immature insult of calling someone or some news outlet ‘fake.’)

This is also the dance of addiction. “You’re not sick! You’re making poor choices!” The movie is a bit slim on the discussion of addiction and alcoholism as a disease; maybe that’s because we already know this, perhaps it is assumed. The film’s not preachy.

There’s some tough love in the movie too, which is new for movies about addiction. Steve Carrell, who plays the father, is stoic. I would like to see more chinks in his armor. He seems out of control only once — in the time-worn, film-weary trope of throwing his phone to show his anger. At least in this movie, he asks his wife to call his phone so he can find it. I could’ve used more ragged emotion from Carrell. But that’s me — I relate more to imperfect, sensitive people than walled-off, guarded father figures.

What the movie gets right, on so many levels, is that the disease of addiction is conjoined with mental illness. This actor who plays Nic, Timothee Chalamet, is perfect — so lovable, one moment, and monstrous the next. Is his brief, drug-induced ecstasy worth the pain, torture, heartache he causes himself and his loved ones? Again, he is in throes of addiction so naturally, the cause and effect of his illness are not forefront on his mind.

This movie does bring to light the scourge of drug addiction in this country. Starkly, at the end of the movie, this fact appeared:  Overdoses now are the leading cause of death of Americans under 50. Wow! Sobering.

There’s another theme found in the movie, which I love — the depiction of a writer’s life. In many films, you get the feeling that being a writer means you sit for about two minutes staring at a computer screen, maybe you wad up some paper — throw the wad, oh dang, it misses the waste basket — and then hooray! we see our hapless writer hero on their book tour. But the hours of research, loneliness, procrastination? Not so much. I liked that this movie depicts a writer’s life somewhat realistically as the solitary life of an artist — much like the life of a visual artist. In this film, Maura Tierney plays the artist Karen Barbour, the stepmom of Nic, who, too, is plumbing the depths through her visual art. Sitting alone. Which is what I’m doing right now.

Just a last thought and perhaps a feminist take on this movie, now that I’ve mentioned Nic’s stepmother, I’m wondering if this movie would’ve been made if the caring parent of a teenager in need of recovery was a female writer. I think we tend to glorify fathers and husbands (and male writers) in our Hollywood films, but from my true life experience, from what I’ve seen: most caregivers, at least among spouses with Parkinson’s Disease, are female.

It could be part of the novelty and romanticism of Beautiful Boy, in that it is the father is the parent depicted as the consistent, caring one. In real life, I’ve found, more women are primary caregivers for physically and mentally ill family members. But they rarely have movies made about them.

I’ve written about other movies on addiction: Great movies about alcoholics and mental illness: Great movies about mental illness.

Snapseed (2)
Am writing this from the Cooper Hewitt cafe. A beautiful fall Halloween day. 

Choose Love over Hate

in each new day, i commit to
be loving to the people i encounter.
at times it is not easy, to be encouraging.
to feel encouraged.

it feels like hate is winning.
when we see this administration meet a ragtag group
of immigrants at our borders with guns.
or defy the constitution.
when the hatred murders people praying in a house of worship
or sends bombs to anyone who dares criticize the leader,
it feels like hate is wining.
and i don’t know what i can do.
but i remember 9/11
i could not rebuild the towers or catch the fallen,
but i could make my own little corner of the world
i could greet my neighbors and smile and nod at people who looked different.
who worshiped in a way different than me.
i could hold the hand of a child.
i could stand up for human rights:
the right to worship
to grow
to seek asylum and shelter
to not be bullied.
it feels like the social norms of the presidency are thrown away
and hate is winning.
i still cannot believe it.
two years ago, i woke,
insecure, frightened, sickened by the results of that last election.
i promised my daughters i would not stop fighting for justice
i still think of Martin Luther King
and Dorothy Day
and Eleanor Roosevelt
and Sojourner Truth
and Elizabeth Cady Stanton
and I will not stop fighting their battles
and there are more who walk among us:
the leaders of BLM, the ACLU, the Parkland youth,
my own Rutgers Church, and Shannon Watts and Moms Demand Action,
and yes, HRC and Maxine Waters,
and John Lewis.
and just this weekend when I heard Andy Hamilton of NYU speak to alumni,
I swear I cried, it was not something extraordinary that he said,
but it was the affirmation of a global education,
and a commitment to people in all their beautiful stories, histories, futures,
to hear a leader I admired, embrace and not condemn.
there are many school headmasters and college presidents
taking up the slack of leadership.

we must not stop fighting for international sister and brotherhood and siblinghood,

We are part of the same human family.
We are greater than hate.
Everyday, I seek to make a small dent in the world of hate,
to turn the world off the axis of hate and on to the axis of love.
sometimes I want to give in and spew hatred too —
hatred for the haters — for those who take away rights or render people invisible–
but my humanity will not let me. and as a follower of Jesus and the Red Letter Bible,
I am compelled to stand up for the poor
the peacemakers
the marginalized
the people of many faiths and no faith.
all i can do is
do justice
love mercy
and walk humbly with God.
it is all and it is enough.

choose love.

This was my morning prayer.

Postcards to Voters button — am wearing this on my coat. It was a gift from my church friend for writing postcards to get out the vote next week. Voting is my super power.

Drama in the Classroom

In drama class a student learns to speak up, act, entertain, socialize, write, debate, collaborate, and create. I love enlivening curriculum with drama because students don’t have to sit still. They can get up, run around, and embody whatever literature they are reading. They can play. And I believe learning is playing. At the online MIT Learning Creative Learning class, the leaders often discussed learning in connection with tinkering — using tools to mess around as they sought to solve problems.

I’ve noticed that in many traditional classrooms students are required to sit at their seats for a long period of time. And I wonder if we do this because we assume that is the physical posture in which children will be expected to work as adults in their own professional lives. Do teachers do this because we want students to be pliable? Do we believe school is simply a preparation for work? Isn’t school also a preparation to live a creative life? Isn’t learning for the sake of learning one of life’s greatest joys? And isn’t the nature of work — the way we work — changing?

By asking students to sit for long stretches of time, aren’t we training them to be sedentary? I know students have gym class in which they can move freely, but all of us need to incorporate healthy and purposeful movement, beyond organized sports, into our lives.

Look, for many years as a professional writer, I could not write without sitting, plugging in my headphones, and tuning out the world around me. In high school art classes, students wear their headphones to get into the zone. But periods of restlessness ensue and built-in stretch breaks and walking breaks always sparked new ideas.

When I headed up a Christmas Party committee in my old office, I insisted that we have stand-up meetings. This kept our meetings short in duration and high energy in spirit.

Moving and standing while writing and working increases productivity. It may be apocyrphal but I’ve heard Thomas Wolfe wrote while standing and using his fridge as a desk. One day in the Village, I ran into my old dramatic literature teacher and author Una Chaudhuri. What was she doing? She was walking and thinking, she said. This was the best way for her to process her own writing work.

The infusion of any course of study with drama makes it more engaging. I have always loved reading out loud to my children and my students. It’s strangely calming for children (and adults too?) to be read to. Honestly, a read-aloud book is kind of like a drug. More effective than a sleeping pill, my husband and I used to read short stories to each other before bed. Cheever was our favorite.

Besides the calming and energizing qualities to a drama class, there is also the sheer entertainment value of it. I remember laughing so hard in my high school drama class when we did improv. Theater is a collaborative art. The guiding principle of improv — of saying ‘Yes! And’ to your given circumstances — is so needed right now. We need to build each other up and not tear one another down.  There is so much good to teaching drama in schools.

When I covered a maternity leave for the drama program at Riverdale, I loved helping the students write and perform their own plays. (See the press release) Students create such amazing work when given the chance to perform major drama in schools. (See for yourself at St. David’s drama/music program.)

It is our belief that people learn best when they are actively constructing knowledge by working on problems that are particularly meaningful to them, in a playful way. – Lifelong Kindergarten (LLK) Research Group at MIT

Speaking of drama and playfulness, isn’t Winona Ryder great? (This tweet got so many likes!)

Human Rights and Globalism

Hearing about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at yesterday’s NYU reunion got me thinking. I freakin’ love global movements for peace. And just because I have a global mindset, this does not mean I do not love my own country any less. It reminds me of the hymn, “This is My Song,”

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

Why do people — the pres’s base — hate globalists? Why do they cheer when this president calls himself a nationalist, implying he is a white nationalist? That is so creepy, harkening back to racist days of the kkk, antisemitism, hate crimes.

I understand patriotism, I love my country. But I refuse to accept the notion of nationalism — that one country or race is superior to another. This line of thinking leads to ethnic cleansing and Nazism. And I’m not going to let us go there. On a far less deadly trajectory, I equate our nationalist leader with a teacher who chooses favorites. It is a dangerous slope. A country’s leaders must care for all citizens, not just those who cheer at his rallies. And supporting other countries diplomatically is not a sign of weakened borders but of mutual respect.

I love and wish we would follow the Declaration of Human Rights. It makes so much sense. I also love the United Nations. I understand that it is flawed and bureaucrats are silo-ed and sometimes they talk for the sake of talking and they don’t do enough. Despite its imperfections, the UN is the best international vessel we have for agreeing on rights — such at the prevention of torture.

cvt-stp_640Once I visited the Center for Victims of Torture in St. Paul, and the dark paneled walls of this suburban home-like office were decorated with bright quotes from the Declaration of Human Rights. The words comforted me, reminding me of our shared humanity. At that time, about 2005, McCain had crafted legislation, this was during the Bush era, mind you, banning torture. This is why I have always respected John McCain — not that I agreed with him on everything, but I agreed with him, unequivocally, on banning torture.

Well-crafted declarations like the the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms our connection across the human race. We are more alike than dissimilar. This matters. We, as a nation, must not impose superiority over other nations or peoples who may appear different than the white males in power. How would we feel if other countries did that to us? We must all work to end intolerance, bigotry, hatred, nationalism — white people, like me, especially.

It is no surprise that having worked at the General Board of Global Ministries or other international church agencies for practically my entire adult life, I would find the term ‘globalist’ inoffensive. Working in tandem with brothers and sisters and all people across country demarcations only makes sense to me. It is my Christian witness — to care for one another, near and far, in their need and/or in their abundance. I want for all of us to be good stewards of our shared earth and our human family.

This Is My Song
Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness

…My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

May truth and freedom come to every nation;
may peace abound where strife has raged so long;
that each may seek to love and build together,
a world united, righting every wrong;
a world united in its love for freedom,
proclaiming peace together in one song.

This post was inspired by Jennifer Butler’s Why Nationalism is Dangerous and Incompatible with Christianity at the Red Letter Christians. Why Red Letter? ‘By calling ourselves Red Letter Christians, we refer to the fact that in many Bibles the words of Jesus are printed in red.’ 

NYU Alumni Weekend

Here are a few quick snapshots from my reunion today down in the Village. This ‘playable actions’ slide, a call to remember our purpose in public speaking, is from a workshop in finding your voice. The leader, Jackie Miller of Be Spoken Partners, reminded us that actors trains for six, eight, ten weeks so when doing public speaking, we should likewise train and be well prepared. The gifts of having an actor’s training with emphases on breathing, posture, focus, all translate well in daily, needed communication skills. Her exercises were experiential and fun. Image-1

This first workshop I attended, basically on disputing fake news, was led by Michael Posner, who runs the first ever human rights discipline in a biz school, Stern School. On the upcoming 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (thank you, Eleanor Roosevelt) — and on a day like today, with, God help us, a horrible synagogue shooting  — we must know that all humans have rights simply by being human. Rights to worship, learn, be safe. This is the universality of humanity. This is our right.

Posner made an interesting point when he said he used to ask Secretary Clinton at the State Department, “Why do we have an ambassador to Benin and we don’t have an ambassador to Walmart?” After all, he reported, the economy of Walmart is bigger than Chile, and Apple is bigger than Bangladesh.

He also called upon the digital platforms to do a better job of prioritizing information. “The most divisive posts become the most amplified.” We react to emotion — fear and anger, mostly.

“You’re not editors, but you’re prioritizing information,” he would say to those who run search engines and social media. And the companies have a responsibility, to take down, “not just what’s illegal, but what’s not right.” And to call out the bad actors, like Russia, who plays upon a country’s divisiveness.


And, finally, as I was leaving my NYU reunion day, after a lovely breakfast, lunch, and evening party, as well as additional workshops, I saw this message at Judson Memorial Church. It is why I love the village and have always loved NYU. The community opens your mind. Image


I am part of an imperfect tribe in an imperfect world. I am not alone. No one is.

There were several small things that happened during this last week that made me doubt myself, made me wonder if I want to keep teaching, or had the strength to deal with the changes in my family life.

I can look around and feel that I am all alone. It seems that everyone else has it all together.

Then I remember that adage, “Don’t compare your insides to other’s outsides.” I may not look like others, but I can still be okay. I have so much life experience and patience. I know I am an excellent and affirming listener, a good teacher, and a wonderful part of a bigger family.

The things is, in the classroom, I often feel like a policeman. In fact, during this summer seminar on classroom management, one of the leaders suggested to us, new-ish teachers, we must act like the new sheriffs in town. Oy! I think that children have internalized enough of the insecure feeling of “I am wrong. I am not enough. I ought to be punished” Simply listening to and accepting a student (or anyone!) can free a child to be themselves. I suppose that the behavior problems I encounter come along with the hive mind and the group think; boys will, many of them, try to get away with whatever they can get away with. I want to have high expectations and yet be prepared when lessons go awry or boys do not listen well.

My goal is to listen deeply while emphasizing a positive attitude and acknowledging a growth mindset. Listening, accepting, empathizing can free a student to truly be themselves more and to grow in knowledge and understanding. The truth is we are all flawed. We are all human.

I truly believe that instead of acting like the new policeman in town, I should be the most authentic and best me I can be. Not to enforce arbitrary rules but to foster the greatest growth for the greatest number of students.

We probably all, teachers and sheriffs alike, need to step away from our perfectionism, to laugh more, to share our humanity. To realize that our desire to appear perfect keeps us from sharing on our deepest level.

Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be our best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth; it’s a shield. – Brené Brown

umw run
This was the intrepid crew with whom I ran a 5K a year ago. I’m going to do it again to raise money for United Methodist Women. 

Support me at: MoveforMission5K.marybethcoudal