Category Archives: writing

Collecting Powerful Prose

The Last Witchfinder defies description a little bit:  maybe historical fantasy? Author James Morrow follows the horrific history of witch finding in the early to mid 1700s from England to America through the character of Jennet Stearne. The daughter and sister of witchfinders and niece of an accused witch, she spends her life trying to come up with a grand argument that would legally undermine the witch laws, using Newton for her guide.

Along the way, she is abducted by Algonquin Indians, shipwrecked with Ben Franklin, and accused of witchcraft herself. And, in an oddly fascinating twist, the narrator is Newton’s Principia Mathematica, the text that Jennet used for her argument, and in the interludes, the book describes its battle against the Malleus Maleficarum, the witch hunting handbook. Here’s where fantasy really takes over.

What I really loved, however, was the rich, evocative  writing, often ironic, and sometimes just fun.

A couple timely samples:

“She [Jennet} wanted only to sit in the shadowed library, let the darkness seep into her bones, and ponder her suspicion that the world contained things of which neither monks nor mathematicians could give a sensible account.” (p. 62)

“I am well aware that the average member of your species will not abandon a pleasurable opinion simply because the evidence argues against it. Self-doubt is a suit of clothes that few of you ever acquire and fewer still wear comfortably.” (p. 113)

And, from the narrator, an anachronistic insight into the contemporary world that is, I think, bleaker than it seems but uncomfortably close to the truth. I would like to think we would take a selfie with the wildflowers:

“True, thanks to all those exquisite quantum equations, you humans now have television (though in my opinion the whole thing went downhill after The Avengers), mobile phones (allowing you to walk through a field of stunningly gorgeous wild flowers without actually being there), and personal computers (hour after hour you stare at the screen, a life of cybernetic desperation.”

I heard Thoreau echoing in that last bit: “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” he write in the opening of Walden. Perhaps cybernetic desperation is not so quiet: living our lives within view of everyone, seemingly all the time.

Inspiration from the Feed

I am inspired by Austin Kleon on a daily basis and eagerly awaiting my copy of his new book. The first chapter grew from this post about doing the work every day even if it is small steps.

So, today, instead of starting with Twitter, I started with Feedly, and the writers and thinkers I have assembled to challenge me with their ideas. Here’s my brief reaction to two items in this morning’s feed. I would encourage you to explore both these writers in more depth.

Jose Vilson, in his piece Writing as Threat, points to the challenges faced by writers of color who must operate in space controlled predominantly by white people and cheers those who are meeting that challenge:

My favorite writing happens when the margins throw pinchos at the hot-air balloon that is the zeitgeist

But, his description of the insecurity of writing is universal. Jose and I share a love of language and reverence for the writers who can wield words like swords or solace. It makes us hesitate to call ourselves writers but, I agree with Jose, his own words have called him out. He is a writer.

Tim Stahmer, in his post No, They Are Not Skills?, reflects on a question I used to ask during leadership workshops: can we teach creativity? We would do a needs assessment around those “soft” skills like creativity and curiosity and then ponder how we get them into an already packed curriculum. Often, the participants came to a similar conclusion as Tim: creativity is a mindset rather than a skill and one that needs space and time to develop, something that may simply not be possible to do in our current iteration of “school.” At some point in the workshop, someone might ask how we define creativity, and that is a whole other discussion but just consider your answer to this: am I “creative” when I build a Lego model from the directions provided?

Walking the Walk

woman at podiumOn Tuesday, I stood in front of a lot of people and encouraged them to take action to tell their stories and to connect with the larger community. I asked them to tweet, blog, and advocate. I do all of these but not with any consistency so I decided that if I was going to lecture others about what they should be doing, I should do the same.
It is time to organize a consistent twitter and blogging practice. I am an active advocate but could be more connected with my own local legislators.
So…here is my first blog post in that direction…mostly a public commitment to connect more intentionally.
I have written about my commitment to 10,000 steps and one thing I have learned is that you must plan ahead in order to meet the challenge. With the excuse of the conference behind me, it is time to start scheduling these commitments.
And…I have now been doing the steps for 243 days…

What I Learned From Walking 10,000 Steps for 116 Days

And counting…

Photo of pedometer face with number of stepsI turned 56 years old in May. I was never a marathon runner but had always been active. Something happened in my 50s and I found myself in spring of 2018 very overweight and out of shape. A long, out-of-breath trek up the hill to the Monroe building in Richmond was my wake up call. And as often happens with those calls, I answered by going to extremes and signing up for a 10,000 step challenge that started on May 1. It was sponsored by a trainer from Canada and the rules were simple: post a picture of your pedometer every day to a private Facebook group. Last person standing (or walking, I guess) would win $100.

I don’t have records for my steps on April 30, but I can tell you that since then, I have walked at least 10,000 steps every day. I hike the farm with the dogs, walk on the treadmill, “ride” my bike on the Wii and use the bathroom that is on the second floor, furthest from my office. I park at the back of the lot, take an extra turn around Target, and, when traveling, locate public walking paths or make a stop on my way home at the Capital to Capital trail where it comes out of Charles City County along Route 295. I get up 30 minutes early at hotels and jostle for the treadmill in the exercise room, sometimes having to settle for the bike and sometimes giving up and heading outside for a walk instead. I walk almost five miles every day and have done so for 116 days. And, since I’m already at 6,000 steps today, I have no doubt it will be 117 when I go to bed tonight.

What have I learned?

  1. Exercise doesn’t necessarily help with weight loss. I lost a few pounds but now have been holding steady. Admittedly, I have not made any significant changes in my diet and it is horrible but it could use some tweaking. That’s next on the list. I will admit to feeling better in general both health-wise and self-esteem wise. I can make a resolution related to my health and follow through on it.
  2. Eventually, even things you don’t love, can become habits. I am not a convert to exercise, not planning to run a marathon or try out for American Ninja Warrior. No tough mudder races are in my future. Part of the reason I do it every day is that if I don’t, I worry that I will stop. Every day makes it a habit, and I find myself wandering to the treadmill or Wii about the same time every afternoon to get over the hump of 7,000 steps.
  3. But when routines get disrupted, habits take planning. While I am fortunate to mostly work from home so I can work in my steps easily, I have been traveling and that means thinking ahead. I don’t want to end up at home or the hotel at 8 PM with 5,000 steps to go. It may mean that early morning treadmill, or talking a walk during breaks or at lunch. I can usually find someone to go along. When we break for the afternoon, I may head out into the neighborhood or to the local chain store where they do not charge you for walking.
  4. Accountability matters. There is a small group of people still participating in the original challenge (there are 4 or 5 of us left along with the trainer), and I look forward to taking a minute each night to share my results with them and like their posts. Most of them are in Canada, and I do not anticipate ever meeting them, but I did think it would make a fun story to take a trip to Ontario and take a walk with them.

My new habit to build is blogging. I suspect all four of these lessons will apply although I’m hoping that I will learn to love the practice of writing. I like to write…but the discipline seems to elude me.

Meanwhile, my tracker just reminded me that it’s time to get 250 more steps so here I go!

Literary Maps

This summer, I am taking a course through North Tier called Telling the World’s Stories Through Google Maps. We’re just getting started on the first week and I’ve already learned a few things I didn’t know about this tool that I use almost every day. I am fortunate to have Tim Stahmer as my instructor.

Part of my motivation for taking this course came from my reading. I was reading Wallace Stegner’s biography of John Wesley Powell, the western explorer known for being the first European to make the passage through the Grand Canyon. Using the maps to explore helped better understand the challenges of navigating the Colorado River. It was fun to look up the various places mentioned in the book, many of which Powell named.

From there, I headed to the 10,000 Islands area of the Gulf Coast of Florida as part of reading Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, the fictionalized story of Edgar “Bloody” Watson who lived in the islands at the turn of the century. It is a wild country, and the satellite view was  most helpful as the Google street view cameras haven’t quite made it to the mangrove swamps yet. Again, maps enriched my understanding of how the setting influenced the story.

Finally..and here was the real lightbulb moment for using maps in the English classroom…I was reading a cozy mystery series set in Leap, Cork County, Ireland. One of the characters was an elderly Irish woman and when I checked out the tiny village in maps, there she was! A woman showed up on one of the photos, pushing her walker down the road. I know it was not the woman from the book, but it occurred to me that exploring the maps would be a wonderful story starter activity.