Editing: a Lenten Practice

It reveals me to myself.“ I wrote this line in my last blog as I described this liturgical planner with which I’ve entered a complicated relationship.

I also wrote “It’s only January. I haven’t even made it to Lent yet.”

Well, Lent has arrived.in-640516_960_720Wednesday I went to a noon service and received the imposition of the ashes on my forehead. “From dust you came and to dust you shall return,” the priest said to me. Over and over I heard that phrase spoken to every kneeling soul at the altar. It echoed in the sanctuary of wood and stone and now it echoes in my mind and heart.   You are finite, it says. You are one of many; only human, who you are and what you can do and how long you will last are all limited.

That voice seems to be in chorus with the planner. As I struggle with using it, seeing it merge my digital calendar and reflective journal, facing its forcing me out of my denial about who I write in my journal that I want to be and what I actually do every day, I feel the truth bearing down upon me.

I didn’t mean to start this liturgical theme in my blog, but advent brought an anxious waiting, Christmas retold a story, and epiphany began a journey toward something to behold.

It seems a Mystery beyond me is being lived in my story. A wheel-shaped diagram on the inside cover of the book represents the liturgical year of the church. My own story seems to be a wheel within the wheel.

I set myself up last week when I wrote this line…

An epiphany is a moment of pause, a moment of revelation. But the still point of revelation is brief, for we are changed by it and it demands we respond in some way. 

 This made for a nice ending, only I wasn’t thinking particularly about the ‘some way’ in which I would respond. Then came Lent.

Some of theme words on the opening page describing Lent in the Sacred Ordinary Days Planner are self-examine, discipline, prepare, empty, fast, quiet, contemplation, and reflection.

It’s a fitting beginning for Lent: Response. I read yesterday that to ask oneself, “What do I give up for Lent? “ is to shortchange oneself. The better question is what practice will I add to my life, in place of the something I might need to let go, in order to better become who I was created to be.

Oddly, the word ‘edit’ comes to mind. Is that a spiritual practice? It certainly speaks to getting rid of things. The final stage in the writing process, I tell my students, is to re-read your work, to cut out all superfluous words. Where many words are, sin abounds, the Proverbs say. While I know this is true of those of us who talk too much and too often, I’m not sure it applies to essays of AP Lang students, though after reading five or six wordy ones in a row, I’m inclined to think loquaciousness deserves punishment and needs absolution.

Say it as tightly as you can – economy of word – I tell them. The fewer words, the more important the choice of each becomes and the more power each one holds. Editing is both eliminating words and choosing better ones; sometimes it’s putting the words in a different order.

I think about the pages of my life, represented by my journal, my planner and my calendar. Are ‘choice, fewer, and powerful’ the descriptions of the life recorded there? Is the order of things what it should be?  I’m not sure. I fear it lacks power because there are not enough pauses, silences, blank spaces, and careful choices.   Yes, editing is a spiritual practice. A Lenten practice of giving up and replacing, editing the filled spaces and times on that calendar to gain the fewer, deliberative and powerful moments that are born in space and silence.

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My Planner: A Love/Hate Relationship

I have a new planner.  A friend of mine found these online and knowing that I was reading Living the Christian Year and trying to live into the liturgical calendar this year,  she thought I might like to try one. I haven’t decided whether to thank her or ‘unfriend’ her.

The first day I loved it! The child whose father owned an office supply store, I had unlimited access to Blue Horse Tablets, #2 Wallace pencils, college-ruled composition notebooks,  and yellow legal pads. I loved fresh paper and new pens.  The teacher, too, loves a clean page on which to write and plan.  Maybe that type of child  becomes a teacher.  I was eager and enthusiastic when I first opened the book.

For the last few years I have used strictly a digital calendar, which I love for many reasons; not the least of which is entering the dentist’s appointment on my phone’s calendar right there in the office. Seconds later that appointment is also on my computer’s calendar. Gone is the small reminder card which once got lost in the black hole of my purse for weeks.  I miss, however, not being able to reflect on the calendar and make notes to myself about what did and did not work.   After I had completely exhausted myself over Christmas one year in the days of a paper calendar, a friend suggested I put a sticky note on next year’s December which read: ELIMINATE ONE THING!  I did. It worked.  I haven’t mailed out a Christmas card since that sticky note got put on December.  I use “old school paper” for my teacher plan book and I write in pencil so I can change easily – which I do often.  I go back and write reflections in colored ink about what works and what doesn’t, what needs more time, or less time.

I thought this new planner would be like that, a place to reflect on my pace of life and note adjustments I needed to make, and a reminder to fuse the practical tasks into the liturgical season. The planner starts the year with a space for writing one’s own rule of life, then each day provides readings from the daily office along with  a list of three projects one would like to accomplish. Underneath the project list is a daily schedule space and a small white space for other notes or thoughts related to the readings or anything else.

This was my first frustration. No way was the book adequate to serve as my journal.  I’m voluble, loquacious, verbose.  For years I’ve kept a black Moleskin journal,  the receptacle of thoughts, prayers, feelings that come tumbling out of my mind. I reflect and ponder and try to make meaning of what is happening in my daily life.  There the words excited, exhausted, afraid, overwhelmed, overjoyed show up.  In those pages is the record of what I felt, perceived, or learned from what happened in my life. Or maybe just a record of what I coped with or survived.

My second pushback was that I’m still going to use my digital calendar – too convenient to give up.

Thirdly, I was trying to fill in those three project boxes every day and complete them in spite of how much might be listed on the daily schedule – transferred from my digital calendar, mind you. I found myself becoming driven by the tyranny of my own list, obsessing over the boxes. I wanted to check those boxes.  The old taskmaster that drives me to accomplishment was rearing his head again.

I was about to give up on the whole thing, thinking it was only a complicated fusion of the calendar and the journal, duplicating what I already have and not serving its own purpose, but  I couldn’t quite let it go.  Hate gave way to love again.

The liturgical day planner is just that, a complicated fusion which represents me. It reveals me to myself.   A calendar alone lets me feel accomplished and productive; a journal tells another truth – driven, sometimes exhausted, afraid, and pensive.  In either book alone, I can deny the other side.

No wonder I love and hate this new book: it forces me to admit that my ‘to do’ list are too long and that I am the author of the list.  Nobody but me is making that unrealistic list.  When I get to the weekend it asks me to reflect on the previous week in terms of mind, body, spirit, home, relationships and work and reset for the next week.  I’m forced every seven days to look back at how my intention (who I say I want to be) matched with how I scheduled my time and energy.   My Moleskin journal and my digital calendar don’t talk to me this way. They don’t ask me to evaluate my schedule or force me to look back at previous pages.  I can continue my dualism in those two separate books.

It’s only January. I haven’t even made it to Lent yet.  I make no promises about my relationship with the liturgical planner for all of 2016.  We are ‘still just dating’ so to speak. A wise friend once told me, “When you feel yourself resisting, lean in. It’s usually what you need.”  I definitely met resistance within myself.   For now, I’m choosing love and leaning into the planner.

Anxiety and Advent: Between Conception and Delivery

Everybody over the age of twelve seems stressed this time of year.  The students in the high school where I teach are finishing their semester projects and papers, taking final chapter tests and preparing for semester exams next week.  The musicians and the dancers and actors have Christmas concerts, recitals and plays. Though football is done, basketball and indoor track are in full swing and practices follow school everyday.  The teachers are equally busy planning, grading, managing, and trying to make it to the academic finish line of the semester, only to leave school in the afternoon and go Christmas shopping, or home to bake or trim the tree.

Culturally, the ways we celebrate this season are counterintuitive to waiting. We are in Advent; but we are not waiting. We are racing, making list and checking them twice, studying, working, trying to use every available minute to accomplish the most before the deadline arrives.  For the students, it’s next Friday. The pressure is off after that last exam.  For adults, it’s Christmas Day. By then, the shopping, decorating, cooking and entertaining are culminating.

One of my students said this morning, “Sometimes the worrying is worse than the actual thing.”  He’s a pretty smart guy.  One of my school’s most accomplished young men, he is musician, scholar, and athlete:  he has an upcoming concert, is running track, is managing AP classes,  and he’s taking the ACT this weekend. He’s been given the wisdom in the moment to realize that the anxiety of all he is juggling is just that: vaporous dread. The events themselves will occur and he will get through them doing the best he can in the moment he’s got before him. And in a week, it will all be over for him.

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My scholars finishing their 5-week composition projects!

I wonder if Mary, the mother of the Christ child felt this way.  I know she was a teenage Jewish girl in a culture and time unlike modern America, but surely it wasn’t all peaceful waiting.  If she was like every other pregnant woman on planet earth, she felt the anxiety of an impending labor and birth. She must’ve had a “to do” list before the Christ Child was born, gone through the nesting instinct like other pregnant mothers, dreaded the heaviness of the final month and the pain of labor and delivery. She must’ve wondered when and where her labor would start and how long it would take and if she would survive it.  I bet she had a particular way she wanted that saddlebag packed when Joseph loaded her up on that donkey and said they had to go to Bethlehem.

I’ve read countless times the story of the angel appearing to Mary and I know well the words of “The Magnificat” found in The Gospel of Luke chapter 1.  Mary was told she was favored, to not be afraid, that she would be visited by the Holy Spirit and have a baby and what to name him. She celebrated this favor and pronouncement when she visited her cousin Elizabeth who was expecting John the Baptist.  Her famous line, “Be it onto me according to Thy word,” is a breath prayer for all of us who come after her.

Still, she didn’t get a whole lot of detail from the angel (as far as we can read) about the day to day between conception and delivery. She had to live each moment letting the narrative unfold, living in the details, coping with the questions, the anxiety or outright fear, until the day arrived when Jesus was born.  Interestingly, He was with her and in her the whole time.

And so it is with us.

Only we can’t seem to stay in conscious awareness of it so we stress about the details, and worry about the deadlines, and experience the darkness even as we carry the peace of God and the light of the world within us.

A Good Question

Where do you write?”

It was a surprising question from a guest at a party in my home.

It shouldn’t have surprised me. I write. I even sometimes call myself a writer.   I’ve worked with this woman for seven years. She knows this about me, reads my blog, and owns a copy of my book. Why did her question catch me so off guard?

I proceeded to explain that if it was morning I wrote at my dining room table because I love the morning light on the golden walls of that room. If the weather is mild, I sit on a back patio by a small fountain, where the sound of the trickling water and the green walls of trees and shrubs surround me. That spot, in fact, is where I wrote my devotional book a few years ago, and I showed her the exact chair where I sat on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, pulling together the week’s worth of handwritten notes and scribbles and somehow turning then into seven devotionals a week in order to meet a tight deadline.

It took only seconds to answer her, but long after the guests were gone and the last dish put away, the question still lingered in my mind.   Though in the moment I was serving as hostess, and day-to-day this person signs my paycheck as a teacher, her question spoke identity to me. She sees me as a writer.

Where do you write does two things for me. It acknowledges my identity as a writer and my need for space and time to work. The question validates writing as work, real work that must be done in a particular space at a certain point in time. CFOs have offices; teachers have classrooms; surgeons have operating rooms. Writers have… desks, tables, laptops, coffee shops… patios?

The inward response of surprise I felt when she posed her question, along with the lightness in my spirit I felt afterwards tells me two things as well. I’ve begun to believe it myself, that I am made to write, that it is who I am; but the surprise tells me that I have yet to conceive that others see me that way. The satisfaction in having the very question posed tells me I long for that – to be seen by others as a writer.

It’s all fine and good to say one should write because she has things to express or one should write whether anyone reads it or not (there are some valid reasons for that – not everything I write is to be public) – but at the end of the day, writing, though extremely solitary in the doing, is not solitary at all. It’s a conversation. I am writing TO somebody, maybe to several “somebodies”. Writing is relational. It’s my side of the topic and I need a reader to ‘talk back’. Whether she ever literally speaks to me about what I’ve written is not the point, but I need to know that someone nods and smiles and underlines and cries and argues as she reads my words – the same way I do when I read my favorite writers who may never know I exist.

The first week of class in AP Language and Composition we cover the rhetorical triangle: speaker, audience, and subject. Without the audience, the triangle collapses. We can’t write into nothingness. You, the reader, must be there for us, in our mind’s eye and ear. We shape our sentences and choose our words for you.

From the first methods class in composition as an undergraduate, I was taught that a good writing teacher writes with her students. I believed it. I still believe it. How can I teach what I do not know and do? I have always found this extremely difficult, though, perhaps because I took it too literally. While my students write, the temptation is too strong to be reading the last thing they wrote or conferencing with one who needs help. The marking of papers is never done!

But I do write with my students – daily, weekly, and regularly. I struggle with blank page, the distractions, the frustrations of revisions and edits, and the balancing of more urgent things vying for my time just like they do.  I don’t write in the classroom while they write, but I do write with them – in my dining room and on my patio and in the red leather chair in the den.   It was an excellent question: Where do you write?

Art, Writing, Frustration, and Learning – an experiment: Part 1

I had the idea to take an art lesson. Just one. I thought maybe I could learn something about my writing practice and process by seeing how someone works in another discipline. I called a good friend who is a working artist and also teaches and she happily agreed for me to come to her studio the next day. It was a whim; I tell you.

I must have had some unconscious awareness of how much I was going to feel like a four-year-old as I took with me one of my husband’s old shirts as my ‘smock’. Consciously, I thought I would probably sketch with charcoal or paint with water colors for an hour or two, pick up a tidbit or two that parallels with writing, and come home and write about it. That is not how it is working out. Notice the verb tense there—My friend won’t let me quit with one lesson and be past tense; —it is present progressive; though I’m not sure how much I am progressing yet.

As soon as I got my smock on and sat down, my artist friend began talking about the picture I was going to paint in oil, but first we would practice on something smaller in acrylic. What? I’m just here for today, I reminded her. She was having none of it. She had a multi-step plan.

We looked through some photographs on my phone and chose a few pictures I liked. One was a landscape, a view of the lake from my back deck, and the other a desert flower from this summer’s vacation. The lake scene would become my oil painting, she said. The first thing she had me do was paint the entire canvas green.

We then turned our attention to a smaller piece of paper and the desert flower picture. She showed me how to put the shapes and lines in first. Then she painted the same image along with me and following her lead, step by step, I began to create my first painting. This smaller picture we were using as practice, to learn to stroke with the brush, not ‘feather’ as I kept tending toward, to learn how to mix the paint and to hold the palette knife. I kept wanting to use it like a spatula in cake icing. The technique is not the same, nor can you lick it clean. I kept forgetting steps in the mixing process and ending up with colors that didn’t even look like good dirt. I began to feel my ineptness. I didn’t expect myself to be good at mixing color or painting on the first day, but neither did I anticipate just how ignorant and awkward I would feel. I wanted to bolt a few times.

I tell my students all the time that frustration is the beginning of learning, that they must have a growth mindset; yet here I am again, encountering something new and foreign, feeling like a child who can’t quite hold her peas on her fork and getting frustrated and embarrassed. But I’d brought myself here of my own volition, and regardless of how bad I was at holding a palette knife, mixing color or making proper strokes with a brush, I mustered my determination to learn something about writing through my experiment with painting.

The flower picture was finally complete, and though one can tell what it is, I doubt it will ever make it to display, even on my refrigerator. My teacher praised my efforts and obviously sees something I don’t or just knows how to be an encouraging coach. Her kind words were water to me. She then had me turn back to my green canvas.

I then painted in the lines and shapes and values in brown. This is underpainting and it will be my guide, she said. Eventually no one will see it. But I will always know it’s there. I liked this idea. It reminds me of varied syntax and paragraphing; no one notices it until it’s absent. It also reminds me of the journeys we all make, teachers and students, parents and children, husbands and wives, all of us traveling guided paths that we sometimes can’t see even as we are walking them.

I’m going back to another art lesson, trusting a teacher and her process and a path I can’t see, hoping my students will, in turn, trust me.

What is their water?

I wrote my way in the last blog post to this sentence, “I will be writing somewhere…because for me, this is water,” referencing David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech which my students were studying for its rhetorical effects. Wallace begins the speech with a story of two young fish swimming along. They are met by an older fish swimming the other way who says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The younger fish swim on a ways and finally ones looks at the other and asks, “What is water?”

I recently had a former student contact me to ask what I was writing lately. His email became the catalyst for me to write the first entry this year. He actually reads my blog, apparently, and had missed it. I’d written plenty, filled a Moleskin journal since April, but nothing was out there for public consumption. It occurred to me, when answering his question about my writing, that though I’d written thousands of words, that wasn’t obvious to my students.

I had been taught in my college days to always write with my students. I believe in that. The best writing teachers are those who write themselves. But actually writing WITH my students, in class, at the same time…it’s harder than you think. They have questions for me; I have papers to grade and lessons to plan. Something always seems more urgent than writing while they write. 

But maybe that isn’t the essential part. Maybe knowing I write and seeing my writing is what matters. Knowing that I, too, have to wrestle against the blank page, have to re-order, cut and paste, and hit the delete key often is what is important to them. I suspect they need to know that I don’t know all the answers and I struggle with ordering my world too and writing is a means to do that. It’s probably good for them to know that ‘first drafts’ in my Moleskin journal are never what the public sees. And while I’m confessing, they should probably know that much of what I write there isn’t good writing or interesting reading.

Writing is essential to me, a ritual as necessary to living as water to swimming. I’m thinking on paper. I often quote Flannery O’Connor, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I see what I say.”

I have to process things in language, either spoken or written. The writing saves my husband, children, parents and friends from having to listen to more than their share. It probably saves on prescription medication and therapy too. It’s a means of discovery, problem-solving, and remembering. It’s an act of worship.

The student who sent the email – I suspect writing is his water too, though he’s multi-talented with painting, photography, drawing and music. He may have multiple waters. As a college freshmen, he is emailing his high-school English teacher that he misses reading and writing this semester. He’s editing friend’s papers for free to get his fix. That’s a man who loves words and is desperate for them! Thinking of him prompts me to think of other students – what is their water?

I don’t mean passion. First of all, that word is so overused in high school and college now it is rendered meaningless, at least to me. Sometimes I don’t feel passion at all toward writing. I resist it. I wish I didn’t feel compelled to do it. I’d have more time for easier, more fun, more entertaining things. My writing life is not passionate as in “I love it and always want it and want it above all else at all cost”. No, water is not passion.

Water, according to Wallace’s fish anecdote, is the necessary medium for swimming. What is my students’ water and can I help them discover it? What is essential to them? Is it hands-on experience? adventure? nature, sketching? solitude? music? movement? competition? I have no idea how to go about doing that and maybe it’s not even my role, but I have a starting point for answering my question. When my students are stuck on an essay question, I tell them, “Write your way out of a hole”.

My Gypsy Life

Pulling my cart out of the room where I taught first period this morning, the phrase My Gypsy Life popped into my mind. I thought again about this blog. It has begun to nag me: the question of whether I’m going to write here this school year. I have not just been on an extended summer vacation from writing, although my initial break started as that. My focus here for the last year has been a window into school, primarily writing about my perspective on the beginning year of high school with my ninth graders, and what little bit I learned about parenting teenagers by making my own mistakes on my two children when they were that age. Teaching freshmen for five years, I seemed to have plenty of fodder.

If I keep the blog, I might should rename it. This year, I made a change. I am now teaching AP Language and Composition to juniors. Even more drastic from moving up two grades and into AP, I have become a part-time teacher. This was a move of my choosing to make room for other things in my life, one of which was writing. Oddly, the thing I was making room for hasn’t quite moved in.

For one thing, a part time teacher is ‘homeless’ at school, meaning, understandably of course, I don’t have my own classroom anymore. In some ways that is liberating. I’ve always hated doing bulletin boards. I don’t have to dust my desk. I no longer compare my room to the cool history teacher’s classroom whose every inch of wall space is covered with colorful posters and art.

But learning to teach homeless has been a new experience. I have a cart. Fortunately, I travel between two other English teachers’ rooms, so the distance isn’t far and the classrooms are familiar. Julius Caesar and Chaucer decorate the walls, not chemical chains or periodic tables. Still, finding a place to land when I am working at school but not teaching has posed some challenges. I tried the copy room, which has two nice club chairs and an ottoman, but it adjoins the faculty rest room, which besides the copy machine is a big draw for traffic. Besides, there was no room for my cart inside.

The teacher’s lounge is just that – a place to lounge – and thanks to generous parents, a place to raise one’s cholesterol and get fat.

The first month of school, I seemed to be in a constant state of flux – my reading glasses in a cabinet in one teacher’s room, my textbook in another, my copies left on the machine yesterday, and my computer cord plugged in the classroom where I taught last hour. I would need a pencil only to have red pens on my cart. It’s taken me two months to establish new habits, find new ways to store things, and see how lightly I can travel.

A colleague with an extra desk in an office adjoining his room offered me desk space, and I happily accepted. I now have a place to land before and after classes and a desk to clutter with papers. I am beginning to feel at home teaching in my gypsy life.

Only seconds after the phrase, My Gypsy Life, crossed my mind, my water bottle turned over on my cart. Apparently the top wasn’t secure, and water went everywhere, soaking papers and smearing ink. Ironically, atop my cart was a copy of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech, “This Is Water” which I would assign to my students the very next day.

Among the many good points in that speech is that we get to choose how we see things, and that sometimes the most important things are like water to a fish, so obvious and essential that we miss them.

Whether or not I have anything to say here about juniors and AP Lang and part-time teaching remains to be seen, but I will be writing somewhere because for me…this is water.

New Year’s Reflections

I don’t like New Year’s Resolutions; it’s just one more thing to make me feel guilty.  Like most people, my resolve runs out before the end of January and by March I don’t even remember what my resolutions were.  I quit making them years ago, at least in the old way of listing goals and drumming up my willpower to meet them.

What I do like are reflections. I like looking back over a period of time, thinking about where I have come from and the decisions I have made, and evaluating the influences in those decisions and the outcomes of them.  Hopefully, I learn something in this process.  Reflection is what keeps one from going through life blindly, making the same moves like a default on a computer without considering that the same habits net the same outcome every time.  The process of reflection enables one to change directions which is what resolutions are all about.

It’s important to get away from “I resolve” – which will not be successful with the same old bad habits and practices – and begin the year with reflection.  After reflection is the time to make resolutions. Then and only then do I have the knowledge needed to make changes in my life. Reflection is the foundation of successful resolutions.

With all that in mind, I begin the new semester by asking my students to reflect on their first semester as high schoolers.  They laugh remembering how scared they were of the lunchroom the first few days of school, how they quaked in fear at the sight of the dean with the flat top haircut. ( Some of them are still quaking in his presence, but that might be a good thing.)  They were scared of the big juniors and seniors who now have become friends and role models.  They survived, maybe even thrived, in the first semester of a foreign language or a high school sport.  For some, their grades took a dip compared to middle school days. They need to figure out why.

Here are the questions I asked them to ponder and respond to in writing:

What were the best and worst decisions that you have made this semester?  What were the differences in them?  What or who influenced those decisions?

If you were starting ninth grade  all over, what would you do differently and why? 

In the past semester, what is the biggest challenge you have had to overcome, and what did you learn?  Address academic, social, emotional, and physical – or at least two of those four. 

How do you want to be different four months from now than you are right now?  How would you like to grow or change as a student?  What do you think you can do ( specific actions) to help you achieve your goal? 

I’m currently reading these pieces they have written and my next post will be some of the wisdom my students have gleaned through the process of reflection. Then we will get on with resolutions and goals for the new year.