Doing Hard Things

In conversation today, I heard myself use a line I’ve used about myself many times, a line that feels truer every time I say it:

I am great at big things; I’m terrible at little things.

I make no claims about the originality of this line, but I have been saying it since my twenties and it’s truer than ever (and improved upon only by the great Glennon Doyle, who has said on We Can Do Hard Things and elsewhere that she can do hard things, but not easy things. I so get this!)

I can do, and have done, some big things. Like, things some people see as forever unreachable: I’ve written books! I’ve moved cross-country (too many times)! I’ve handled a lot of misfortunes from child sexual abuse to mental health issues. I’ve done some big things! Or at least moderately big.

But little things? I am the worst, and I am worsening. The list of things I can’t do ranges from remembering your birthday to paying bills on time to answering email to keeping the kitchen clean to taking daily medications. I am terrible at establishing or maintaining habits or systems of any kind, from exercise to filing to putting away laundry. (Literally. I am so unable to put away laundry, since forever, that in August and September alone I have had a dear friend put it away for me while I was away (several hours’ work), have paid a stranger to help me put it away, and have sorted it into piles several different times… only to I mess up many, many little things per day, and unfortunately many people around me have had to accept this intermittent incompetence.

If you know me in real life– or even if you’ve glanced at some of the titles of recent posts here– you’ll know that I’ve been dealing with some extra-big Big Things. Some of those I have written about, and some I haven’t. Overall, I am coping with these Big Things as well as can be expected or better.

But, there’s a catch! I’m not sure if this is obvious to all but I’ve been clueless, or whether these Bigs differ from my many previous Bigs, or even if my unskilled skills have gotten even less skillful. Turns out: the these Big Things I am dealing with now have necessitated way, way more Little Things than I had already, and I am drowning. Just as one example: my son’s mystery tumor and its related or adjacent other medical mysteries require coordination, communication, and administration by me, as do the bills, insurance, times and places of appointments, transportation, medication, rehabilitation. It’s cascades of unrelenting -ations of the very type I’m absolutely miserable at. The other Big Things I’m wrapped up in are the same way. It’s like the Autobots of important life priorities and the Decepticons of tasks required to address those priorities are in a full-on melee situation, but they keep transforming unexpectedly, and switching sides, and nobody is quite sure whether the enemy is a truck, a dinosaur, a giant gun, or a bumblebee.

Then, and here’s actually why I started this post, there are the ways I make it harder for myself. I’m unaware of most of them, and the ones I have caught onto are apparently the ONLY habits I’ve been successful in forming! Like how I hire help with some home maintenance projects to save me some time, but then I have to keep the multiple unfinished projects in “pending” mode, with materials everywhere and clutter then amassing around it, leading to clutter in some other place, and we’re all living in a house with alarming, precarious piles and nothing in its right lace and a looming threat of panic attacks from the visual clutter alone. You know, those ways!

No solution, just a report from a tired woman who, coincidentally, is not only behind in tidying but who also discovered– just as I was about to hit “publish” on all the remaining course material my students need and have waited so patiently for– that the video material comprising about 1/3 of the “reading” for the course has DISAPPEARED! Like, every link now broken. Good news is the library still owns most of the resources; bad news is every single one is now on a different platform, indexed in a different way and requiring a different link. So what was to be a ten-minute task on Tuesday is now STILL not done!

And so Friday night is like this: the students, who are amazing and very busy, will keep on waiting, and I’ll keep on trying to accomplish the Big Thing of supporting teachers in the very hard work of teaching writing via a trillion impossible Little Things of hunting down links and editing an elaborate course management system accordingly while trying not to accidentally Google symptoms of horrible bone cancers or what kind of grout I am supposed to order or forget to eat the soup I heated up three hours ago.

No answers! But since that’s all both grim and a bit dramatic, I’ll leave you with this aggravating, inspiring statement, one we can file somewhere right in between Little Things and Hard things perhaps: Let it Be Easy. It came up accidentally when I was trying to source/link Glennon’s quote about “easy things.” Go read it. It’s got me thinking about my way of linking one task to another to another, and then overwhelming myself, causing blockage of my more important pursuit of the Big Things that matter to me.

And yes, I knew it wasn’t the detail I needed to complete this post, which itself arose organically and distractingly from a different search I was doing for an essay to replace one of those damn videos! [Process note: I had to search for my own essay Writing is Hard (because Filing! It’s a little hard thing!), which led to this Writing is Hard post from Jeff Goins, which led to his Let it Be Easy post, which led to this post you are now reading. Yes, I know. I KNOW!] I’m a free woman, damnit, and I clicked on it, and read it, and MAN I want to learn how to let it be easy.

Picture him rollin (William update)

William rolled into the school year at Delta Middle on wheels! While he’s getting around great on crutches, they’re exhausting, and while he also drives a mean walker, it’s frustratingly slow. So, thanks to friends who shared a youth wheelchair, a school nurse who’s not only highly qualified but also had some relevant mom experience, and a school community that is literally built on the idea of having a school community, he had a great first day. The basic vibe was “yep, found my people.”

Since both kids AND both parents had first days of school this week, as did almost everyone in our circle as either an educator, a parent, or just a resident of a newly jam-packed college town, it’s been hectic. But, Jason and I have been able to trade off schedules, Beth has swooped in with incredible backup, and the rest has been patched together more-or-less successfully.  Colleagues have helped me to adjust my courseload to a more manageable configuration, loving friends and neighbors from school, work, church, and everywhere have been showing up with meals and gift cards, and I’m basically astounded by the ways help like this really does help. I love the students in my face-to-face course, and my asynchronous online students are patiently waiting for me to get them started a week late. Our other kid is doing well too (but a Mom-initiated update to the internet would not be welcome, so you will have to ask her yourself if you see her)! 

Also, a true emergency does have a way of helping us not to care what others think of how we’re doing! “What I was able to do in the time I gave it,” along with an apology for anything beyond that, is the new standard of accomplishment, and although it sucks to have a sick kid, I am counting this awareness of priorities as a side benefit that I do appreciate.
Still unknown what is actually wrong with William’s femur and what lies ahead. Bloodwork and microbiology yielded no new information, he goes on with antibiotics for now, and September 1st we’ll visit his surgeon (Dr. Fox, a superstar bone specialist), and see where we are then.

Wrap your learning community in cushy foam?

My son has a very, very cheap laptop, and I’ve been surprised how little he uses it. He likes gaming, coding, writing, making videos and podcasts, and all kinds of graphic arts, and this device was a gift for him to expand his skills, to play around in the more powerful and flexible environment of the PC as compared to his locked-down school-issued chromebook.

And yet, he’s taken it out maybe twice in six months– all the while watching video after video about things he wants to someday do on it. What’s stopping him?

Finally, last time he took it out, I sat next to him on the sofa and watched over his shoulder. Nine year old boys don’t necessarily love their moms doing this, so I had my own computer open as a decoy. I’m sure he was completely fooled! From this vantage point, I saw it. He’d be typing text, maybe into a document or, in this case, a Minecraft command line. Being a human being and a nine year old and my genetic descendant, he’d make a typo every other word or so. And just as I have done three or four times in the last line or two, he’d reach up to the backspace key to go back and change it. All typical. Until, seemingly inexplicably, his whole machine shut down. “Argh! I hate that!” he yelled, then powered it back on and waited. And waited. Then clicked on the program he had been using and waited. And waited. And waited. (I said it was a cheap PC).

About two minuted later, it happened again. Again in another five. Finally I saw what was happening: the Power button was somehow, stupidly, right next to the Backspace button. Apparently this is a thing. And has been for at least 11 years as seen on Reddit, the mothership of internet ranting. WHY?!? People have the actual job of designing computers, and they suck at it.

How perfect a metaphor for writing, though! So often we seem to power off when only a backspace is necessary. Sometimes I’ll be working on a piece of writing and, sometimes after writing many thousands of words, realize I don’t like what I am doing or that I need to change my approach. Reaching for the Backspace button, I realize I don’t yet know how to fix it, and I get so discouraged I can’t make myself work on it at all. Power off! I’ll go hide out in email, or course prep, or more likely eating chips in bed and feeling bad about not writing. It feels safer.

In fact a lot of learning can be like this, too: take for example groups I’ve led or participated in where the aim was to understand and address racism and systemic inequities. As a white educator working among other educators who are predominantly white, so often the work requires unlearning things we thought were true about ourselves and/or the systems in which we work. Backspace! Envisioning change, we find we will have to take apart things that are awfully firmly cemented, like curricula or policies. Backspace! And then racism is so everywhere, and so very baked in to the entire American educational enterprise (big, collective Backspaces) and into our own socialization as human beings and as teachers (backspaces) and the more we look at it the more those backspaces might slip and Power Off. After all, it’s hard to keep mind of one’s own power to effect change in systems that we not only work in but have also been shaped in. It’s…a lot. To say the least.

Photo of laptop keyboard to which I have affixed with blue masking tape a big chunk of foam to cover the Power button

I fixed my son’s keyboard like this. I am apparently an engineering genius!

I have found that when it comes to writing, this same strategy of adding a barrier works pretty well. The more we can make it impossible to shut down, the better we’ll do. So I do things like make writing dates with friends, switch to freewriting or speech-to-text, use Focusmate, and/or promise writing to people so that it’s just harder to hit Power and quit writing.

What about the learning communities doing that hard work of subverting racist and other oppressive conditions in education and in the world? The work of making deep change, and of learning deeply, only really gets done when we choose to be there. So while covering the Power button might work on the keyboard, in a learning community part of the work is actually learning how NOT to “Power Off” even when the button is right there. We could quit any time. So many have, and many more have not even begun the work. Yet we keep on showing up, writing our ideas and intentions toward greater freedom and teaching that liberates, Backspacing when we need to while keeping the power On.

Scary story

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Invited to a classroom to write with some first and third graders:
“You won’t scare the kids!”
Nice thought, but truly, I would
were masking not still a thing.
No amount of stickers
or “Write On!” t-shirt
or smiling enthusiasm
or typewriter socks
or book-print leggings
or punctuation skirt
or gimmick or trick or joke
could make it less scary that I
had both jaws broken then bolted back on with titanium
had my nose grow crooked after
had a screw poking through my sinus just so
have a rubber band holding my front teeth together

that the doctor
sliced me open between my teeth and upper lip
peeled back my face
removed screws and plates and gave them to me in a baggie
scooted my nose back into a straight line
and sewed it there for good measure

that when I woke up I
ran out of local anesthetic
cried for the nurses to do anything
called it worse than the broken bones I’ve walked on without knowing
called it worse than natural childbirth
called it worse than the worst migraine
(or maybe torture, though I’ve not been tortured)
made the doctor come running with his big needles
took four shots directly into my face
looked up within three minutes saying “Ok! I’m fine now!”

that the next day I swelled up like Violet Beauregard
my eyes turned purple then swelled shut
bruises slid down my cheeks and chin
and the doctor sent medicine that helps, but slowly
And indeed, I would scare the kids!

*NOTE! I was so beautifully cared for by TriCounty Oral Facial Surgeons! The anesthetic thing that happened was NOT something they did wrong, but something my body does almost every time I have a cavity filled or any local anesthetic like lidocaine or articaine (it was just more severe than ever) . I strongly recommend Dr. Engroff for any oral surgery you may need to have!

Any writers here?

“Are there any writers here?”

Being a specialist in teaching writing, writer identity, emotions and writing, and writing research, I ask that question a LOT when I work with any group of people. I have asked it of college freshmen, kindergarteners, and students at every stage in between. I have asked it of beginning teachers and classroom veterans, of doctoral students and senior professors. I have asked people in school, in Sunday school, in the woods, and even by the pool. And for all of those groups of people, across all of those times and places, if the group is new to me, the answer to “any writers here?” is almost always “no.”

Most folks keep both their hands and their gaze down.

Some folks give an emphatic, “No! I hate writing!”

Some folks raise a timid hand for yes, then lower it as they see nobody else is.

Lots of folks ask or tell what “counts” as being a writer.

The older they get, the fewer writers seem to be in the room. Younger kids will say they’re writers if their teacher has been saying it. (and how I love those teachers!) Older ones will say it, but will often qualify it, like “well, I write, but I’m not a writer-writer; I’m a kid.” With teens and adults, maybe one or two in a room usually will claim the label “writer.” These often either journal regularly or have published something.

Lots of teens and adults say with regret, “I used to be.”

Sometimes someone brave says, “I want to be.”

A lot of my work is about helping all these people (and their teachers!) get from feeling like non-writers who can’t write or hate writing to feeling like writers who can write and do write, even if they also hate writing. We build confidence and stamina, we learn to find and grow ideas, and we learn how to work in a writing community. If we keep at it, we learn to live with the difficulty that never really goes away (writing is hard!).

But today was different.

Today I visited a group of pre-kindergarteners I had never met. We gathered on the carpet, and like always, I asked the question. “Are there any writers here today?”

I blinked, and every hand in the room was up. Intrigued, I asked them to point to any writers around them. Many of course pointed to me– I had been introduced as a real author! But then, those small and pointy fingers started to move. One child pointed at another. A third child pointed at herself. Children pointed at the ones across the rug from them. A teacher pointed with all her fingers, spreading them like jazz hands aimed all over the carpet. Pretty soon fingers were waggling and twirling, and a few whole arms swung around heads, pointing at any human in their paths!

A whole room of writers. And so, we got to work!

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Ah, high school memories

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Remember when I had my hair shaved on one side of my head, wore clothing all the wrong sizes, and hated everyone my age?

Remember when I joined the golf team? Very upstanding! But I never broke 100, and felt dumb with the other girls, and played one tournament, then had a panic attack in the van for the next one, then stopped going. The picture in the yearbook didn’t show those parts.

Remember when I made region and district choirs every year from seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh… but not twelfth, because I had never opened the music until the day before?

Remember when I got kicked out of gifted and honors and extra and special? Just regular was all that was left. Just regular, and I was nowhere near enough regular for regular.

Remember when I asked if I could graduate early?

Remember when I asked to change schools?

Remember in Algebra II, or was it Geometry, when Chris Thomas walked behind me and spit into my hair, and the teacher kept on teaching and I kept on sitting there?

Remember when I had an F in English? Also, remember when I won the English award?

Remember when I forgot to fill out the National Merit Finalist forms till the day they were due, so I wrote a poem on them in pencil? It was about how little an application could reflect a real person’s potential.

Remember when I ran out of gas on the way to my interview at Rice? “Must not really have wanted to go there,” remarked an adult who should have known better.

Remember the kids I had crushes on, the kids I kissed, made out with, had sex with but didn’t love?

Remember when I skipped classes to smoke under some stairs or in the parking lot? To sneak to my car and read Greek mythology, with the seat leaned all the way back so I couldn’t be seen?

Remember when I ran away from home to love purely forever and ever, only to be found and returned promptly to home, forfeiting my 16th birthday and all remaining privileges for what seemed like forever?

Remember when I removed the license plates from my car so that I couldn’t be found after driving getaway for convenience store beer raiders?

Remember all the times I stormed out of a class, or lost my temper, or burst into tears? And read all the textbooks, and did no homework? And slept through discussions, and wrote only the papers we could work on in class?

Remember when I felt like an alien pretty much all the time, everywhere?

How do you remember those days?

On not having any ideas

Why is it that all my best writing ideas happen when I’m driving a car? I don’t even like driving.

It’s been like this for as long as I could drive. Wait… it’s been like this for as long as I could write. When I’m cleaning, or walking, or driving, I have so many ideas. And they are all so good! But of course I’m doing something, and I don’t write them down, and I don’t remember them when I might write them down. And I’m no beginner, so I’ve learned from my forgetting, and now I often make a voice memo or tell Alexa or take a note on my notes app or the back of my hand.

Later, when I sit down to write, I look at those notes and forget what I meant. Or I remember, but the ideas seem much dumber than I remembered. Notes or no, when I’m sitting with my open notebook or at the keyboard, I hate everything I write. It feels like I have no ideas.

For so much of my teaching career, I couldn’t understand what kids meant when they said they had “no ideas.” What do you mean, no ideas? Everyone has ideas. I’m having tons right now. Brains are electrical idea cauldrons, with more ideas bubbling up than we can even grab onto and think about. At least that’s how it’s always felt to me. How can they have no ideas?

But now, having found myself feeling I had no ideas and even saying I had no ideas, I have some ideas about ideas.

I now understand my writers, kids and adults and basically everyone who’s felt they had no ideas, much better. When they say they have no ideas, they mean one of at least these two things. One, they have ideas, but they’re like the ones I make in my notes: they seem less good now, and the writer becomes afraid of going with them, for fear of looking stupid. This isn’t a writing problem, or an ideas problem, it’s a guts problem. I know this one well.

Two, they haven’t actually started trying to write yet, but they are scared they won’t have any ideas when they do. So, they don’t start trying. This isn’t a writing problem either, and if it’s an ideas problem, it’s not lack of ideas at all but simply a delay in ideas. And the delay is caused by fear. So, again, a guts problem.

Ideas don’t come when we’re doing nothing but waiting for ideas to come. They come when we’re doing something. Like driving, or cleaning, or walking. Or, they come when we’re doing something like…writing! Yes! We usually need to start writing in order for the ideas faucet to really turn on.

Or, clean or walk or drive or shower or something. Live. Do things. Notice how ideas come.

Then, the guts problem. If you don’t have the guts to go with the ideas that surely come, think on this: what other ideas do you have? Probably none except for the ones that you do have. So, guts or no… might as well go with those.

By the way, when I opened this Post window and started typing, I had no idea what I would write. I remembered having some good ideas while driving this afternoon, but they didn’t seem so good after all. I sat doing nothing. Finally I started typing. And here we are!

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Keeping track of time

My feet haven’t touched grass since September. Heck, until yesterday even my shoes hadn’t touched grass since December sometime.

My skin hasn’t felt the cool pool, nor have my toes touched sand, since August.

I haven’t been married for over a year.

I haven’t worked from my office in 729 days. Exactly.

I haven’t eaten banana pudding since 2013. It was in West Virginia. I went back for seconds, then thirds.

I haven’t been pregnant, fat and proud and full of hormones, since 2012. My hair was curly from the hormones. I emobodied anticipation itself.

My kitchen hasn’t smelled of green chile stew since 1998. 

It’s been 44 years since my first day of kindergarten, and here I am still in school every year since.

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Look Out, I’m Slicing!

That’s right, and I don’t just mean playing Fruit Ninja. I’m saying that finally, FINALLY this is the year that I can join the Slice of Life Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers.

Can I really write something sharable, daily, for more than two days in a row? Honestly, I can do almost NOTHING with any consistency. But I’m giving it my very best AND have teamed up with some great teacher-friends to make it easier!

Can’t wait!

The blessing of an extreme lack of authority

I wish someone had told me years and years ago:  It is not only OK, it is a gift to possess no authority or expertise whatsoever.

Sure, in areas of life in which I am the responsible party, I need authority to carry out my work. And I’ve spent a good chunk of my professional life thinking hard about the authority of teachers and teacher candidates, and how writing forges authority.

But today, I’m seeing that in some cases, authority just gets in the way.  There’s a blessing in feeling so novice in a thing that one can simply show up and learn.  And that’s just what I’ll be doing on Friday at a conference session I’m excited about.

At the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual Convention, a roundtable session (Session A.06) will focus on “Religion, Spirituality, and the Work of Literacy Education.”  Tables will gather to listen and discuss very smart scholars sharing research on aspects of literacy education as it intersects with religion and spirituality. The papers are fantastic. They are wide-ranging, from histories of religious oppression expressed in English Language Arts classrooms to efforts to read more mindfully, drawing more explicitly on religious literacies, to accounts of spiritual dimensions of students’ and teachers’ engagement in English teaching and learning. My role is to provide a “response.” This is open-ended, but the typical thing to do would be to summarize the papers, synthesizing them and drawing forward key themes and an agenda for future research.

For the two weeks I have had the papers, I have been unable to write that kind of statement.  Don’t get me wrong– I CAN write one and have written them. My problem isn’t lack of ideas or lack of experience of the task. It’s that I don’t think these researchers need that kind of response from me.  Fact: they are ALL out ahead of me when it comes to research and theory in this area. For many of them it is a specialization; for me it is a set of curiosities. While I know how to speak authoritatively on this topic and in this setting, and could do it, the truth is that I lack any real authority with this group of people.

So. Am I stuck?  No! The opposite!  Because I am a learner in relationship to these people, what I can do is just be me. I can tell some stories that connect to what I have read, and I can offer my stories as question sites to which their very smart work might be applied. So, people who show up can expect to hear not a “Respondent talk” but instead a couple of funny stories, told with love, and a whole bunch of questions.

If you’re at NCTE, come to the session!  It’s going to be wonderful. A.06, 9:30-10:45 am, in Room 127.