Getting It Wrong to Get Things Right

 

Life has a way of giving us enough challenges to teach us to adapt quickly to situations by forcing us to pay attention to mistakes. Setbacks, missteps and shortfalls form the backdrop of our experience, shaping and contrasting the triumphs and achievements that are the peaks of a rich existence. Accepting mistakes, embracing them, even, is not only a life skill, it is resilience at its most optimal. Mistakes are our teachers—the bigger the error, the greater our potential for growth. I’m finally beginning to appreciate my own mistakes now more than ever, and I’m looking for ways to fall down with grace. If I scrape my knees often enough, I know I’m playing for keeps. Only benchwarmers escape scratches and lumps.

 

During office hours recently, a young lady came to see me to tell me about all the things that weren’t working in her life. Unable to produce work, she complained that she had no motivation and could make no effort. She was scared about failing her classes, rightly so. This particular young person has a great personality, a lot of energy and possesses a very chatty disposition. Even when she is completely unprepared to discuss the topic at hand, she still wants to contribute. Looking at her, I couldn’t help notice her need for guidance. Interrupting her rambling, I asked her to think about the advice she’d give a friend in her situation. Her mouth opened, but I didn’t want an answer—at least not at that moment. I wanted her to go home, reflect and stop by again. I could see that talking is too easy for her. She can talk all day and never get to the reflection and introspection she needs.

 

That’s a familiar response for many of us. We fill the silences with noise. We turn the volume up on the voices on the television or radio—anything so long as we don’t have to be alone with our thoughts. To her credit, she pulled out a battered notebook and a pencil stub and wrote down the assignment. I’m not sure I’ll see her again, however. She hasn’t been back, yet, despite her enthusiasm. But before she left my office, I looked her in the eye and told her she shouldn’t worry too much about making mistakes. They’re natural, I said, just make some new ones, too.

 

Contemplating her situation later, I couldn’t help but see myself. She’s been repeating the same errors for nine weeks, now, always returning to pick up where she left off, and I, too, have done the same things for years. It seems I easily get on the dreaded hamster wheel, naively expecting to step off in Paris, while merely circumnavigating the familiar perimeters of my comfort zone. I can’t grow if I’m not willing to be clumsy, to fall down a few times and keep trying. I’ve grown too careful; I don’t want to look foolish or risk too much, but security also has a price tag.

 

Reading the San Francisco Chronicle a few Sundays ago, I was so saddened by an article about the growing income gaps between blacks and everyone in San Francisco and California. It seems that every other group is making financial and economic gains, while African Americans are literally moving backwards. I walked around with the unsettling numbers on my mind for weeks. I searched my students’ faces for answers, but they don’t have any more answers than I do. I grieve as I look at the handful of African-American students out of the ninety in my sphere. I think about my part to play in keeping them from becoming the living statistics in the newspaper. I pray for them. I nudge them to stay vigilant so they can ride their star to victory.

 

A few days later, it hits me. An email about a full-time position in my department sent by our department chair is a historical first. It was the first time in my eight years as an instructor in the department that I learned about a position from an inside source. As my past telescoped through my mind, all the pain I’ve endured at the hands of my colleagues, of hiring committees predisposed to disqualify applicants who happen to be people of color, I suddenly recognized myself, the woman trapped by fear.

 

 

Despite being illegally disqualified from the applicant pool more than once, I repeatedly applied for a full-time post, steadfast and loyal daughter of the college that I am. Each time, my disappointment mounted heavily on my buoyant personality, weighing me down, etching away my confidence. It was only last year that I decided to stop applying, to stop torturing myself with the process. But there I was, once more drawn to the idea by an email even though I know I have try something different if I want to thrive.

 

I am the living statistic in the paper. This year I spent half the year unemployed, only to make up the deficit in a deafening whirl of activity as I unexpectedly accepted a temporary full-time position, while nursing a debilitating injury.

 

Noticing is my first step off the wheel.

 

For me, the task is to stay on course with my purpose and calling, to be willing to persevere and walk into the unknown. The temptation to stay comfortable is great. Even the squeak of the wheel is comforting—I know just where the bumps are, where to pause for a breath. Limping at high speed on the wheel to nowhere, I hurry to my stop, chasing a dream that has long since lost its opulence.

 

With these realizations, I am at last able to see that my student, the one justifying and stringing together excuses, the one who can do it all with her eyes closed like an expert beader, is me. I am my student. I keep making the same mistake. It’s safe and easy—predictably awkward, but not at all scary. Finally able to understand why the Chronicle article was so upsetting, I acknowledge that it is because the article is about me. I have to make a new mistake.

 

The decision to change is nothing new for me. I have been a transitional character all my life. This is my big chance to fall down while doing something I feel is critical for my own liberation. Ironically, it’s the best semester of my teaching career, because I am finally living from the very center of my heart. Releasing and opening to possibilities is more like disembarking in a strange land than it is like falling exhausted from a squeaky wheel. At least I know I’m heading toward the unfamiliar. When the alternative is to tighten up my laces, pop a few Advil, and keep spinning, I want all the more to take a chance. It can’t get any worse. I’m already at the bottom. Maybe I can kick off from here and make some of those mistakes I’ve been dreaming of, the ones that require faith, courage and support—the essence of what we must believe, ask for and risk to answer a calling.

 

Taking time to reflect on the last 15 years of my life, I notice some of my biggest failures have helped me to get quiet and reflect. In many ways, taking a risk to make a major change, such as a career shift, is an opportunity to be authentic. I can’t tell my students to follow their dreams and take risks if I live a safe existence, sanitized by fear. A life of meaning requires letting go and inviting transformation to happen; transitions require discernment and faith, a deep knowing that there is enough, that God will sustain us, and that we are meant to fall down and help each other up again.

 

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Crafting a Connection

 

Spending time with my partner’s mother is important. We live far away from each other, and I only see her in person every few years. One way that we stay connected is via correspondence. She makes and sends us the most beautiful handmade cards. They are utterly perfect and charming and chuck full of love, so when we scheduled a visit to the Twin Cities to see Hal’s family, I made a special request that his mother teach me to how to make cards.

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Like any great artist, Glenda has a process. The perfection of her cards comes from her careful attention to detail. She’s not afraid to start over, either. No glue goes on a card until the design, pattern, and shapes are just as she wants them. The paper must be folded just so and a burnisher used to align the edges. After stamping, Glenda patiently cut along the edges of the ink until there was an entirely different object. Paper and ink color must be sampled and selected; cut and matched. I know she does it this way every time. Each card has suddenly become even more precious to me, now that I see how much time she puts into each one. They are an act of love.

 

My inclination was to rush in and make several cards, but we spent the afternoon talking, sharing and explaining, and it yielded only the one collaboration. From cutting the paper to reviewing a catalog, it was clear to me Glenda’s intention was to give me an introduction to an art form and her passion. I don’t know that I can keep up her standards, but I’m thrilled about the memory and the card we created. I know what’s important to her. It’s the little things that count.

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Start a New Hobby Today! Three Hobbies with High Returns and Low Investments

There are many reasons to start a new hobby. The possibilities are endless, but I’ll make several suggestions and even give you some good reasons to begin now. Most hobbies can have a low-skill threshold with high returns and benefits that can have a lasting impact on the quality of your life. To incentivize you, I’m recommending projects that you can start with just 20 dollars or less. Have you ever considered soap-making, sculpting or flower arrangement? Hobbies let people share their creations and interests with others and can create important “social objects” that can be great conversation starters to keep life interesting.

A new hobby can foster:

  • Community: new friends and people who are involved in your chosen activity; intergenerational transmission of cultural heritage
  • Tranquility and serenity: most hobbies can be done alone or with company; plus, it makes you feel good
  • Challenge and growth: learning and engaging in a hobby can build skills and provide a sense of accomplishment
  • Passion and pride: hobbies can lead to joy, excitement and fulfillment
  • Communication: teaching, learning and sharing are inherent parts of acquiring a new hobby; storytelling is often involved

Hobbies bring people from different cultures together. They’re also a great way to transmit knowledge intergenerationally. And, they’re usually fun. Try one today.

Soap Making: It’s fun and easy to make a basic glycerin soap project; you can start with about $20. Get a basic Kiss Naturals DIY Soap Kit and use supplies that you have at home. Fancy soap molds start at under $2. This is a fun after-school project to do with children of eight years and up. If you like it, you can get fancy and invest in essential oils, coloring and other additives such as flower petals and grains. Make soap as your gifts for Valentine’s Day. Soap is always in fashion.

Organic Glycerine Soap with Shea Butter
Organic Glycerin Soap with Shea Butter

Flower Arrangement: You don’t need to go to school to arrange flowers at home. You can start this hobby for about $20, too. Go to your local thrift store and get 3-4 vases of various sizes and shapes. Stop by any place that sells flowers, and buy 3 packs of flowers (or if you grow flowers, get your clippers out). Try to pick colors or textures that contrast or place single stems. Trader Joe sells bundles that start at $3.99 each. Spend half an hour mixing and matching to fit your vases. Use kitchen scissors to cut stems to length. Arrange the flowers until you’re satisfied. Place each vase in your home or office to brighten up a desk, bathroom sink or an entryway. With a little primping, flowers can last 7-14 days. You’ll be hooked in no time.

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Mixed Bouquet: $15 (plus additional smaller arrangements)

Sculpt: Sculpting has to be one of my favorite hobbies of all time because it’s so easy and fun. It’s inexpensive, too, starting at around $5 for clay. Use molding clay, Play Doh or make your own salty-dough at home (Here’s a recipe: http://fun.familyeducation.com/sculpting/recipes/37041.html).  Get your fingers dirty by feeling the medium in your hands. You don’t need a goal—you don’t even have to make anything. You can simply play with the clay, and put it away when you’re done. You can also make simple shapes such as boxes and circles or a cool incense holder. Have fun, and don’t judge your creations. It’s therapeutic to play with your clay. When you make something silly, whimsical or magical, let it dry and paint it later. Soon you’ll have sculpture all around your house. All your friends will want one.

Have fun, and let me know how it turns out!

Visibility: the Fear and Redemption of Being Seen

 

 

We don’t want to stand out. We don’t own our gifts and talents. We shy away from the limelight. Students drop a class on the day that they are to present. We can’t stand to have our pictures taken. We put on brave faces and don’t admit to our troubles. Why do so many of us fear visibility? Let’s examine the tendency to hide and the motivation behind this action.

 

 

As an undergrad I studied literature with a voracious appetite. When I first learned the concept of “the gaze” and how some of us have the status of the viewed or the power to cast down our gaze upon the object, the body of the other, it sounded true, profoundly true, and unquestionable. It has the potential to humanize or dehumanize. As a woman of color, I have often been subjected to the unwanted gaze. I have been defenseless against it, and I have also been enslaved to it, desiring it and needing it to feel alive.

 

 

Unfortunately, too many people wander through life unable, owing to trauma or abuse, to accept love in the form of healthy relationships. When you’re a teacher, you encounter people who reside all along the length of this continuum, in which the opposite extremes of this reality are the most challenging: the needy “hungry ghosts” (so named by Thich Nhat Hanh), whose bottomless hunger attempts to consume your very soul, and the stalker, bent on owning, controlling or destroying what she cannot have. Both are dangerous. Both need love. Both may not be able, ready or willing to accept the gift. Audre Lorde said that “we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live.” This is must be true. I’ve read that sometimes schizophrenics don’t like to take medication because they lose contact with the voices in their heads, their friends, their community. In a sense, they are constantly being seen by their personalities. They are never alone. Barring mental illness, we all do intricate dances, moving between solitude and companionship, stepping up and sliding back.  But why do we let our illnesses drive us so deeply into isolation?

 

 

I believe we fear the visibility of our illnesses and diseases more than we do humiliation, which tends to be fleeting. We hide our worries, fears and doubts from others. We are expected to mask our pain, hold it together, go to work—crawl there if we must. I think of my unexplainable shame of having a shingles episode, going to work in agony. My mother insists that I not tell anyone about my shingles (if she only knew about this blog: ay-ya-ya!). More commonly, people feel apprehension to discuss cancer, skin disease, mental illness and depression. Ironically, though it is during the times when we are weak that support is most critical, we may not ask for help. Perhaps this ties in to some aspect of the American Myth of Meritocracy, the creed by which we live, consciously or unconsciously; being weak or sick places us in the “other” category, and we all strive to be included in the dominant culture, to assimilate into the norms that govern a “normal” existence, anything—anyplace—so long as we are not “other-ed.” We attempt to make ourselves invisible in order to avoid the yardstick of normalcy. This makes our suffering worse, possibly prolonging illness.

 

 

As a teacher, I find that visibility is a two-edged sword. In my quest to facilitate a classroom that is built on principles of engaged pedagogy, every student has a voice. On the one hand this is empowering for students to be seen; on the other, that visibility carries enormous responsibilities and ramifications. Some students have never been truly seen by a person in authority. This can lead to drunken power in some, usually those who already feel entitled or disenfranchised but who often possess lots of social power. It can also cause fixations in students, with the teacher as the unfortunate object of focus. A student may feel that she is special (which is not untrue) but will not know the boundaries of the relationship. These relationships can be sexualized in the mind of the student, and in a college setting, this doesn’t always feel safe. I sometimes feel vulnerable to the returning gaze. Suddenly the student wants more than I am willing to give; he takes it personally when he is not privileged above others. I cannot turn out the light. I have to see the relationship through to the end, praying that the semester will conclude well. Still other relationships are precious. The connection is deep, lasting and mutually reciprocal. I cannot have the one without exposing myself to the other. I have to be open to both, or I may miss a gem.

 

 

In my maturity, the need to stand out  and take up more room than is necessary has lessened, reduced by the loving relationships that sustain me in authentic ways, rendering the superficial gaze, just that. Yet, I understand that we must be seen in a loving, compassionate light if we are to thrive. In life, our good friends see us; their gaze nurtures us. I am learning to trust people more by opening myself to sympathy and empathy. It does not make me weak, as I have always assumed. It makes me visible. Had I discussed my shingles sooner with more people, I perhaps would have received more advice, and maybe recovered faster. I am stronger in community than I am by myself. I understand that better, and it’s blessing me.