Category Archives: writing

What Are You Going To Do?

Front Porch of an old house with furniture and plantsThe number one question I was asked when I told people I was retiring was, “What are you going to do?”  I wish I had had a more satisfying answer for the questioners and, honestly, for myself. I named my  hobbies including gardening, music, reading, crafting. A desire to travel. I mentioned potentially writing a book. But, ultimately, I didn’t know what I was going to do other than not continue doing the work I had been doing. It was work I loved, which made it hard to leave behind. But, the love had made it all consuming, and I knew it was time to take the next step even without being completely sure of the path.

Because of the holiday weekend, today seems like my first real day of retirement. So, what did I do? The usual morning routine of reading and journaling then feeding and walking the dogs. Rode my bike to the post office. Watched Wimbledon. Puttered around the house and garden. Ticked a few items off the to do list.

Now, as the afternoon wanes, I am getting around to doing the one thing I did want to accomplish on this first day of retirement: writing a blog post. And, in writing, I have come to a short time answer to the question: I have blogged on and off almost since blogs existed. But I never got into a regular practice. Now, I have the time, and I want to use at least some of it to establish that practice.

Not sure what I’m going to write about: technology, education, gardening, cooking, and pretty much whatever else takes my fancy.

Writing By Hand

While most of my professional life is spent typing, my personal life revolves around the handwritten word. I keep an analog weekly calendar that gets littered with post it notes. I keep a book of lists and one where I copy out powerful writing I encounter. And, while I tried to abandon the practice in 2014 in favor of blogging, I continue to write at least one or two pages in a spiral notebook every morning, my version of Julia Cameron’s morning pages. This year, I have added a daily log that I am keeping in an old fashioned composition book: simple two- or three-word descriptions of what I read, listened to, made, wrote and did each day, one page per day.

All of these items are hand written, usually with Pilot G-2 pen with .7 mm points and mostly black. The pens are a recent change as I was a Pilot Precise .5 mm point rolling ball user for decades. I still take one out now and then. And I’m also playing with Paper Mate Gel Inkjoy Pens, also with .7 mm points. Just ordered a 10-pack of fun colors like Pink Pop and Bright Blue Bliss. I have a reading friend in England who keeps his readings logs on ledger books with special fountain pens and ink. For him and me, handwriting is more than scribbling a grocery list or a thank you note.

I love making handwritten journal entries, the press of the pen on paper, the comfort of college ruled lines, the sense of capturing a personal moment with no intention to share. The morning pages provide a moment to be completely and utterly myself. I know lots of people who keep these kinds of writings in digital form and are completely happy doing so. It certainly makes them easier to access and use in later years, if that is the intention.

I’m not sure about my intention for all these words: the notebooks fill boxes and shelves, and I have a temptation to simply heave them on the next family bonfire. But the larger temptation is to start returning to them. Two decades of words about work, life, marriage, spirituality, relationships and sometimes just plain drivel, I’m sure. I don’t think I want to start at the beginning. Maybe read entries from the same date across different years? Or just pick one entry from each notebook. They span anywhere from two to three months, depending on how many days and pages I wrote. In the first decade or so, I was much more committed to Cameron’s specific process. But as it got stale or repetitive, I gave myself permission to make it work or me, incorporating readings and journaling prompts.

I’m not sure I have a big lesson here: I am grateful for word processors and blogging software and spell checkers. They make publication so much easier. But, I am also grateful for growing up in the age of handwriting, which means I have options when it comes to “writing,” or actually producing the text.

Begin Again: On Challenges & Change

YourselfAs at least one nice person noticed, I have been blogging regularly for the new year. I do personal writing every day but have never developed a public practice. For now, my goal is to post every day, but I am giving myself lots of space around topics. Just post.

I did miss yesterday and didn’t even think about it until I was tucked in bed, too tired to do anything about it. So, today, I begin again.

Begin again: Those two words come up often in the other practice I am establishing: meditation. I signed up for the 10% Happier app challenge that started this past Monday. The goal is to meditate 15 out of 21 days, but I am working on finding time every day. I want this to be more than just taking ten breaths, though, but a real meditation practice that helps me understand how my perspective impacts my world.

The basic lesson so far has been that meditation is not about emptying the mind, as that is impossible, but about getting still and seeing how the mind works, the ideas that appear and disappear, the paths we wander down and those we ignore, the emotions that arise and their impact on our thoughts and body. There’s a lot going on when we are sitting quietly with our eyes closed. And we should view all of it with self-compassion and a sense of curiosity.

I know schools are adding mindfulness activities and training to the curriculum and am interested in learning more about how they work. I plan to make this a focus of my reading and research this spring. It would be possible, I think, for this to do more harm than good depending on the approach. But, at a basic level, learning to be able to identify your state of mind and use mindfulness techniques to connect and tinker with that state could be a useful skill in a stressful world.

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 (tongue in cheek intended):

“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 wrote 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?