Tag Archives: Dreams

Dream Like New York

23 Oct

The First Step... photo by JAS

“What ever happened to those childhood years?/When we thought we could fly/We got to keep those dreams alive.” –Tyrone Wells

The past few weeks have been an incredible reminder of the power of dreams and the miracles that come from keeping dreams alive – no matter how impossible they seem.  Some people might call it luck, but it’s reinforced my belief in the idea that you get back exactly what you put out into the world.

But let me explain…

My rockstar fantasy has been the cornerstone of  a lot of my blogging and teaching.  I first talked about it last year with my Information Literacy class, who responded more than favorably, and fed my dream.  I knew then that becoming a rockstar was going to involve a lot more than simply dreaming optimistically, and, at the time, I didn’t have the time or the inclination to begin the process of learning to play the guitar – but the dream stayed alive.

Earlier this summer I went to Chicago to visit J. and while chatting with her downstairs neighbor [who is a professional musician and was looking into starting an online guitar teaching business], I jokingly told him about my rockstar fantasy, and then played the opening lines of “Rock You Like a Hurricane” for him on my iPhone and said, “I don’t care about music theory, or even really about becoming a great musician, I just want to play that solo.”  He laughed a bit, and then nodded and said, “I’ll have to think about how to do that, but I think it might be possible.  You are; however, going to need a guitar.”  I laughed and said I’d work on it, but that money was too tight for me to be spending even a minimal amount on such a luxury item.

But I kept the idea in the back of my mind, and knew that when the time was right, it would all work out – because it always does!

In the meantime, I was looking forward to the August release of a new album from Dream Theater, my all-time favorite band.  I mention this because when talking about my rockstar fantasy I always get laughs and nods when I say that I envision myself playing on stage with guitar heroes like John Petrucci [the lead guitarist for Dream Theater, and the player who, according to internet lore, can play “four million beats per second” on his guitar]. Those in the know immediately understand where I’m coming from – and how completely insane my idea is.

In addition to the new album, DT had scheduled a tour and a few weeks before the album’s release, one of my students informed me that the band would be playing on October 3 at the Royal Oak Music Theater.  I sat and debated whether or not I should buy a ticket – for about 60 seconds – and then got online and purchased it.  By the time the concert date rolled around, not only was I excited, so was everyone else around me [or at least amused enough to support my excitement].

Dream Theater’s live performance was amazing, and I loved every minute of it!  I returned to the classroom full of excitement and tales to tell about the concert, and my students generously shared their own transformative concert moments.  I was pumped and ready to play the guitar, again!  However, the lack of an instrument was still my biggest obstacle.

I wasn’t worried about it, but I felt a little sad that, again, my rockstar fantasy wouldn’t begin to come true.

Two days later, a student brought her electric guitar to school and offered to loan it to me  on the condition that she could be the bass player in my band once I learned to play.  I was overwhelmed by the incredible generosity and the fact that she believed I actually could not only learn to play, but also form a band once I did. As I assured her that she would absolutely be the bass player, students around the room began piping up about what they wanted to play.

I strapped on the guitar, and found myself suddenly leading a band [named “Flaming Salad,” don’t ask…] that currently consists of a lead guitarist [who needs to learn to play], a bassist [who already knows what she’s doing], a wanna-learn-to-play-keyboardist, a tambourine player, a triangle player, and five drummers.

We’re going to be stars.

Later, when I posted the picture of me and the guitar on my Facebook page [with the title “One the Road to Rockstardom: 1. Learn to hold the guitar. 2. Learn to play it”], students chimed in and told me I looked like a “super bad ass” and that they knew where I could find the online resources that would teach me to play.  The student who lent me the guitar told me that she thought it shouldn’t be any problem to learn to hold and play the guitar, rip on solos, and then, contact Petrucci and ask to play with him – on stage.

No problem whatsoever.

As the conversation continued, more students weighed in and they began introducing themselves to one another and asking each other questions.  All of a sudden we had a community of music loving people discussing guitars, finger exercises, guitar heroes and how to best teach me to play.  Since that day, students have offered me all kinds of tips, tricks and suggestions, and one accomplished musician has even brought in his own guitar and ukelele and performed for our class!

I still don’t have any illusions about actually becoming a rockstar [mainly because I am just now realizing the horrible toll that playing electric guitar strings takes on one’s fingers.  It’s painful and not pretty at all], but the process of dreaming out loud has created new ways for people to connect with one another and talk about their dreams!

In the end, I think that keeping the dream alive is what matters the most.

And as Tyrone Wells sings, “I only strive to stay awake/But the child inside me/Dares to believe I still can fly/Can’t let those dreams just die.”

So, if anyone’s got Petrucci’s number, I think I’m just bold and crazy enough to make the call.

Just dreamin’…again.

“Dream Like New York” by Tyrone Wells


Far From Heaven

17 Sep

The Brooklyn Bridge - photo by MAG

Keeping dreams alive is a Herculean task in this society.

I’m always saddened by the reaction that follows someone’s admission that they dream of doing something different than what they are currently doing.  What usually happens is that someone close to the person will say, “You want to do what?  Who? You?”  The person doing the dreaming will then immediately begin doubting themselves [because, of course, these are the people who “know best”], and mumble something along the lines of, “Yeah, well, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about – I’m not going to do it!”

I know this because, in the past, I’ve been on both sides of the exchange, and neither side has made me feel good.  So, I’ve made the choice to shift my thinking and have moved to a new vantage point.

I choose to believe that anything is possible.   

I am not delusional, and I don’t have unreasonable beliefs about achieving the impossible [because as much as I’d love to do a stadium tour with my guitar heroes, it’s not going to happen until I actually learn to play the guitar].  What I’ve come to understand is that the one thing that all people who dream big dreams have in common is that they set goals, they work hard, and they understand that they are not in control of the outcome of the dream.  They see that the dreaming, in and of itself, is the important part of the equation, and that the only things they’re in control of are how much they learn from the experience and what they do with the knowledge.

This became clear to me a few years ago, when I listened to Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement address.  Jobs told the story of how he’d dropped out of college, and that this decision had had a profound effect on the aesthetic features of Apple computers.  Jobs certainly wasn’t advocating “dropping out” as a way to “move ahead.”  The point he was trying to make was that “…you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

I can see this reflected in my own life.  So many things that have happened and that I’ve done didn’t make sense until much later [sometimes more than 30 years], but eventually I connected the dots.  When I heard Steve Jobs’ speech, it suddenly made sense, and much to my delight, I heard him encouraging people to become intellectual pack-rats.

Personally, I’ve found the pack-rat mentality to be the very thing that makes it possible for me to continue to dream, as well as to be able to support the dreams of others. I can’t know how the dots will connect, I just have to jump in and give things a try.

Recently, after months of resisting, I let go of my preconceived notions and played Dungeons & Dragons for the first time.  My resistance to playing was, ironically, as a result of buying into the stereotypes about how all D&D players are “anti-social geeks who live in their parents’ basements.” However, a friend who is a D&D player, and someone I respect as an intelligent, articulate educator, patiently explained the game in a way that appealed to my interests, and when I said I thought I’d like to try it out, he created a character for me and invited me to join a game.

As a result, I spent an evening with some incredibly intelligent [and hilarious!] people who introduced me to the game and showed me that D&D is about so much more than the stereotypes surrounding sci-fi fantasy role play.  To my delight, I found that the game actually requires many skills that I try and teach to college students every term – research, critical thinking, storytelling, following directions, and teamwork.  It opened my eyes to new tools I might be able to use in my classrooms, new ways of thinking about how to approach problem-solving, and creative challenges, and well, it was just plain fun to play.

My evening playing D&D is just one example of the many experiences that have helped me gain a new understanding of concepts and ideas, of the way other people think and process information, and even of myself and my way of thinking.  It’s these kinds of experiences that have taught me, over and over again, that there is a common thread connecting all knowledge, and the interesting part is finding out where that thread begins.

How does this all connect to keeping the dream alive?

Dreaming requires us to have faith, and in order to do this, there has to be some kind of evidence that the faith is worth the effort it takes to keep it alive.  There has to be a reason to keep believing.

There have been plenty of people who have told me my dreams are crazy, and, at first, it dampened my enthusiasm [and hurt my feelings], but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to realize that these “Dream Killers” are people who have surrendered their own dreams. They feel anger, regret, disappointment, and shame because they’ve let go of the things they hoped to achieve.  In order to justify the choices they’ve made, they try and discourage others from aiming too high or dreaming too big because they don’t want to be reminded of their own failures and they don’t want others to see how fearful they are of taking a risk.

The only thing that can protect dreamers from this negative influence is to fortify their defenses with a wealth of evidence showing that dreams can come true; that it’s better to remain optimistic and hopeful; that it pays to believe.

The evidence that keeps me believing is based on the fact that I see what happens when students take the knowledge they’ve gained each term and use it to fuel their own dreams – and the dreams of those around them.

When I see the light go on as an English student suddenly understands how a thesis statement for a “boring research paper” is connected to the mission statement they want to write for the film company they hope to start;  or when a Cultural Diversity class suddenly understands that putting people in categories that limit who they are – and can be – is a way of making it easier for other people to define them rather than giving them the option to define themselves as individuals; or when an Information Literacy student suddenly grasps the connection between evaluating sources for a research paper and evaluating manufacturers for a product they hope to develop, those are the moments that give me hope and remind me of why I keep believing. And I get just enough of them, at regular intervals, to keep my faith alive.

It’s a cycle, really.  Faith fuels the belief, and belief fuels the faith.

I know what keeps me dreaming [when I want to give up and admit that it’s not possible] is that I’m constantly searching for new ways to convey information to students.  I feel responsible for making sure that someone believes.  It’s not because I think that I alone make the difference as to whether or not my students believe [sometimes it’s their faith that keeps me believing], it’s because being responsible for maintaining hope and optimism, gives me the power to keep my own dreams alive, and the more I do, the happier I am.

Last year, I started this blog as a means of showing students how to blog and encouraging them to dream big. Looking back, I can see how this exercise has helped me overcome my own fears and pushed me to do things that I didn’t know whether I was capable of doing or not.  This blog has inspired me to write – in public – and to accept that nothing I write will ever be “perfect,” but that I can continue to edit while I try and clarify my ideas.  This blog was one of the reasons why I took a chance and believed I was capable of traveling to New York – alone – this past summer. This blog has allowed me to connect with students, family, and friends in ways that might otherwise not have been possible, and has enriched my life in ways I had not anticipated.  And this blog has inspired me to push forward and look for new ways to support other people who are dreaming of doing something bigger and better.

Some of the things I have planned for the next few months just might help jump start a new career path for me, they might help me become a better teacher – and a better person – and then again, they might simply be fun experiences that leave great memories.

Whatever the case, I now know that it’s important to plan and set goals for the future, to work hard at what I need to learn, and to never ever be afraid of dreaming big dreams. And I’ll let you in on a little secret – it’s not that I’m particularly brave or courageous. Most of the time, I’m scared as hell when I start pursuing a new dream.  The secret is that I’m incredibly stubborn about the fact that I believe things can be better because I’ve seen how things can change when I do believe.  Well, that and the fact that, for better or for worse, my stubbornness frequently overrides my fear.

So, the next time you hear someone talking about what seems like an impossible dream, instead of telling them they’re crazy, look them in the eye and say, “I believe.”  Because the more the dreamers support one another, the better chance they have of keeping their dreams alive.  There’s strength in numbers, and that strength can make all the difference.

I encourage you to push past your fears [and the fears of those around you] and pursue your dreams.  When you do [and if for some reason you wind up feeling afraid] just remember that there’s at least one person out here who believes in your right to pursue that dream – no matter how outrageous it seems.

Let go of your preconceived notions of what the outcome should be, do what you want to do, and have fun doing it!  And trust that the dots will all, eventually, connect.

I believe.

I hope you will, too.

That’s the Way It Is

7 Nov

Photo by DMT

I’m a slow mover.

Admittedly, I love to dream big – about everything – but the impulse and the action are two very separate things in my world.  Most of the time, I am able to identify my dreams very clearly, but I have to sit with them for a while before I find the courage to turn them into reality, and lately I’ve felt the urge to turn my New York City plan into something more than just a dream.

I think what’s made me hesitant about moving forward is that I view moving to the city the same way I view entering into a long-term committed relationship.  I fell hard and fast for the city, but settling down with it makes me nervous.  What if I’ve over-romanticized this city?  What if I don’t know what I need to know, and I find out I’ve made a huge mistake?  What if the city isn’t all that it appears to be and I end up disappointed in it?  What if we’re a bad fit, and I feel obligated to stay because I’ve made such a big deal out of it?  What if the city breaks my heart?

I know I’m anthropomorphizing this city, but that’s me – the pragmatic dreamer.

I don’t have a good track record when it comes to relationships, and this plays a large part in my thinking.  In the past, I’ve idealized things and as a result, I’ve jumped in too far, too fast, and lived to regret my decisions.  Why?  Because I’m stubborn and because I feel guilty for letting people down.  This is what makes me nervous about New York City, and why it’s taking me so long to put the wheels in motion.  I know I love the city, but I don’t want to make another mistake.

Yet I know that mistakes are the only way I ever learn anything, and that I can’t spend my life trying to amass enough evidence in order to avoid making mistakes.  Sometimes I have to let go and just make the leap – but it’s so difficult and scary.

Lately I’ve been recalling something D. said to me a very long time ago.  We were deep into a philosophical discussion of the nature of love and how love works, and I spun out a million theories on how love might work.  I think, for D., the solution was simple and self-evident, but he patiently fielded my million and one questions until he finally said, “Mary, it’s not love if you don’t throw yourself into it 100%.”  I didn’t disagree with him, but I wanted to know how I could maintain my individuality and autonomy without compromising myself.  I wanted evidence that I could throw myself in 100% and not lose who I was.  D. chuckled as he responded, “You don’t have to “give up” anything, but when you’re really in love there will be things you want to let go of in order to compromise.”

I can see this now as I start to plan my move.  I love New York City.  I love its beauty and its grittiness.  I love the possibility of adventure and excitement just as much as I love the inevitability of the challenges that will cause me to struggle. I love that I will never completely know – or even understand – it, and that that will be what keeps me interested and excited about it.

I want to leap in and trust that everything will work out exactly the way it’s supposed to work out.  So,  I will approach my relationship with New York City as openly, honestly, and optimistically as possible.  I will learn to compromise, and I will love this city for better and for worse.  I will choose to believe that we can learn to live happily ever after.

After all, love – in any form – comes to those who believe it.

One Year to Move Blog Music

Downtown Train

6 Nov


Photo by DMT

I love public transportation.

When J. and I visited New York City three and a half years ago, I fell in love with the subway system.  There is something so amazing about hopping on the subway with millions of other people and being transported from one part of the city to another with speed and ease.

Photo by DMT

I’ve fed my fascination with the NYC subway by listening to the Bowery Boys podcasts, which detail the history of mass transit in New York City, and this has made me love it even more.

The story of Alfred Ely Beach and his pneumatic transit system captured my attention.  In 1869, Beach came up with the idea of utilizing the pneumatic technology used to move letters and packages to transport people from one location to another and began construction on what was supposed to be a small tunnel for pneumatic tubes.  He built a larger tunnel that could accommodate human traffic, and opened his block long system in February of 1870.  Believing that an extended system of transit had potential,  Beach lobbied the New York legislature between 1870 and 1873 for permission to build a city-wide pneumatic “people mover,” but his idea was opposed by politically connected property owners on Broadway, Alexander Turney Stewart and John Jacob Astor II, who felt the construction process would damage buildings and interfere with surface traffic.

“Beach operated his demonstration railway from February 1870 to April 1873. It had one station in the basement of Devlin’s clothing store, a building at the southwest corner of Broadway and Warren St, and ran for a total of about 300 feet, first around a curve to the center of Broadway and then straight under the center of Broadway to the south side of Murray St” [Scientific American 2010].  [Interesting side note: Beach published the blueprints for the railway system in the 1870 issue of Scientific American, a magazine he and Orson Desaix Munn bought in 1850 for $800.00 – that’s $23,000 in today’s dollars according to the consumer price index].

Beach lost support for his system when William Tweed’s Tammany Hall political machine was disgraced in 1871.  The Panic of 1873 dried up any possibility of funding for the project, and by that time other investors had begun building the elevated rail system that would become the 19th century’s answer to transportation issue in New York City.

Photo by DMT

The history of the subway system adds to my fascination with the actual experience of riding it.  Every weekday over 5 million people ride the subway, and this excites me because this means that there are hundreds of opportunities every day to meet new and interesting people on trips up – or down – town!  I imagine the conversations, the connections, the adventures, and the new discoveries made possible simply by stepping on a subway car!

Ever the pragmatist, D. has reminded me that this also means the possibility of “meeting” the germs of those 5 million people.  He keeps me grounded in reality and cognizant of the fact that my pre-move to do list will need to include a flu shot and investment in lots of hand sanitizer.

Photo by DMT

Given that my experience with the subway system is extremely limited, I’m fairly sure that I’ve romanticized what it will be like.  I know Rod Stewart will not be down in the tunnels late at night pleading to know whether he’ll see me tonight.  I also know that it’s highly unlikely that eye contact with a stranger will lead to love at first sight like in a Savage Garden video.  However, if I have romanticized it, I’m okay with that.  I think the New York City subway system could use a little romance.

And with 5 million daily riders, the possibilities are seemingly endless.


One Year to Move Blog Music

Live as You Dream

30 Oct

Central Park. Photo by DMT

I’m keeping my New York City dreams alive.

In part two of my “Optimism 101” course, I’d like to offer a list of movies and videos I frequently watch in order to remind myself to keep dreaming and, maybe even more importantly, to keep believing in my dreams.

These movies and videos inspire me for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that each one of them gives me faith.  None of the “heroes” in these digital motivators is perfect.  In fact, that’s precisely what I love about them.  Infallible heroes are not interesting or inspiring, what’s inspiring, to me, is the idea that the challenges presented by human frailty are used to shape spirit and mold character.  I love the flaws, and I love those who can get knocked down over and over, and yet continue to rise.  I love the heroes who have faith in their convictions, but who also aren’t afraid to admit when they’re wrong and change direction.

Oh, and I’m a sucker for great quotable lines.

Optimism 101 Movie List

1. Peaceful Warrior [2006] – This movie is based on the real life story of Dan Millman, a former UC Berkeley gymnast who underwent a personal transformation after a terrible accident and later founded The Peaceful Warrior’s Way, a self-help motivational teaching movement designed to help people empower themselves.  The movie is a cross between a drama and a philosophical life lesson, and it does an incredibly good job of driving that lesson home through the lessons that Dan learns when he meets a gas station attendant, Socrates [convincingly played by Nick Nolte]. My favorite lines in the movie are “Take out the trash. The trash is anything that keeps you from focusing on the only thing that matters – this moment.  And when you’re truly in the present, you’ll be surprised at what you can do, and how well you can do it.”

2. Interstate 60: Tales of the Road [2003] – This movie is a hilarious trip down the fabled “Interstate 60” as Neil searches for answers to his life’s purpose after meeting the elusive O.W. Grant [Gary Oldmam].  Neil’s lesson is about how to let go of the need to look to others for answers and to trust what he knows is right for him.  One of the best scenes in the film is when Neil takes a woman to the town of Banton to look for her missing son, and ends up in the office of the local sheriff [Kurt Russell].  There he learns an important lesson about the ways in which trading individuality for the perception of happiness is an incredibly dangerous choice.  My favorite line is uttered by Bob Cody [Chris Cooper] who tells Neil, “Say what you mean, mean what you say. You know that if everybody follow that rule, there’d be a lot less trouble.”

3. Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address – This video makes me simultaneously cry and cheer when I watch it.  Jobs reminds the audience of newly minted graduates that they should “follow their bliss” and do what they truly love.  It is very simply the best reminder that while circumstances and events in your life are not within your control, your choice to see them as obstacles or life lessons is.  My favorite lines are after Jobs explains that Macs have such beautiful fonts because he dropped out of college. He says, “Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college, but it was very, very clear looking backwards 10 years later. Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards, so you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something–your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever–because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.”

4. Tombstone [1993] – I love this movie because it is about loyalty, friendship, love, and the strength of believing in one’s convictions.  Wyatt Earp [Kurt Russell] follows his conscience – and his heart – and does what he believes is the right thing to do, knowing that it might very well cost him his life.  The friendship between Wyatt and Doc [Val Kilmer] is an amazing thing to behold, and is the source of my favorite quote.  On his deathbed, Doc tells a conflicted Wyatt, “There is no normal life, Wyatt. There’s just life, and you live it.”

5. Simon Sinek – How Great Leaders Inspire Action [2010] – This talk is based on Sinek’s book Start With Why.  In it, Sinek discusses “The Golden Circle,” the basis for his theory on why great leaders and corporations inspire action and loyalty.  My favorite line is Sinek’s thesis, “People don’t by what you do, they buy why you do it.”

6. Freedom on My Mind [1994] – This California Newsreel documentary about the struggle to gain voting rights in Mississippi in the 1960s should be required viewing for every American.  The film goes to the heart of the movement and combines actual footage shot during the Mississippi Freedom Rides with 1990s interviews with the people who were involved in the rides and in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.  I love this film because it illustrates the enormous complexities that were involved with the struggle without trying to provide a monolithic narrative.  My favorite line is from Endesha Mae Holland who, at the time, was viewed by the town as a teenage girl with no morals.  She recalls, “The whole town looked down it’s nose at me, but the movement told me I was somebody.  They said I was somebody.”

7. A Man Named Pearl [2006] – In 1976, Pearl Fryar was s a black factory worker who bought a house in an all-white Bellville, South Carolina neighborhood.  When the real estate agent informed the residents of the neighborhood that a black family would be moving in, they were upset because “Black people don’t keep up their yards.”  As a result, Mr. Fryar, who had no artistic or horticultural experience, created a yard that is now considered a topiary masterpiece in both the art and horticultural worlds.  My favorite line comes from an interview with the Reverend of Mr. Fryar’s church.  When people ask him how an old man can do what Mr. Fryar does [he was in his 50s when he started the garden], the Reverend says, “Sometimes blessings come early and sometimes blessings come late, but they are always right on time.”

8. Braveheart [1995] – The epic story of the fight for Scotland’s freedom, William Wallace is one of the best heroes on film.  He loves his country, his friends, his family and his late wife, and while he isn’t perfect in any way, he is deeply committed to doing the right thing to the end.  There’s a tie for my favorite lines in this film, it’s either “Every man dies, but not every man lives.” or “In the year of our Lord, 1314, patriots of Scotland, starving and outnumbered, charged the fields of Bannockburn. They fought like warrior poets. They fought like Scotsmen. And won their freedom.” The last one leaves me sobbing every time.

These are a few of the films that give me hope, and allow me to keep my faith alive.  If you’d like to share the movies or videos that lift your spirits and help you keep your faith in your own dreams, please do.

I’m always looking for new inspiration — and my students would probably appreciate it if I’d add some new quotes to my repertoire.

One Year to Move Blog Music

Don’t Stop Believin’

13 Oct



Slide by MAG, Photo by DMT


Changes are afoot!

It’s been a while since I posted anything, but as I reminded students all last term, “One thing at a time.”

My journey continues as I find myself taking a second job in order to help build my New York City fund.  That’s not the only reason I am taking this second job, but it’s a big part of the reason why I can dig down deep and find the will to work more.  I’m also excited about the opportunities this new job might open up, and even if it doesn’t end up being a direct stepping stone, it will be something I enjoy doing.  Or at the very least, something I learn from!

During my blogging hiatus I thought a lot about what it is I need in order to shape my life into something I really love, and last week I think I came up with some basic answers.  I was inspired to do so because, a few weeks ago, the head of the Academic Advising center where I teach asked me to give the key note address at our Honor’s Brunch.  So, last Friday I showed up with a Power Point presentation for a talk entitled “Success: How to Achieve and Maintain It.”

Those who know me would probably be surprised to know that I was scared to give the speech.  Why?  Because I don’t know that I know what success is, and because I was afraid of embarrassing my students in front of their guests if I didn’t know.  I need not have worried so much.

I explained to the audience that I think success is about the combination of attitude and action.  The three factors that I see as most important to achieving and maintaining success are: dreaming, trusting, and choosing.


Slide by MAG, Photo by DMT


This blog contributed to my first point – we need to give ourselves permission to dream big, we need to plan, and we need to adjust.  It always amazes me how inflexible people become when they don’t get exactly what they want, but then for a large part of my life, I’ve been one of those people.  It wasn’t until I realized that the branches on a tree that survive the storm, are the ones that bend and sway when the storm hits.  The ones that lack flexibility are the ones that crack and come crashing to the ground only to wind up in the wood chipper.

Motivational or depressing?  You make the call.

The second point I made was that we need to learn to trust.  Mainly, we need to learn to trust ourselves, and this is a constant struggle – for me, anyway.


Slide by MAG, Photo by DMT


D. once told me that the key to happiness is to “…do what you want to do, and don’t do what you don’t want to do.”  The first time he said this to me, I got defensive because it sounds like such a selfish life philosophy.  There are many things I don’t want to do, but are necessary if I want to live within civil society!  Over the past year, I’ve done some very deep soul searching about this, though, and I’ve realized that he’s right.

Everything I want to do is what makes me happy, and everything I don’t want to do ends up undermining my confidence in myself and leaving me feeling unhappy.  I may not love the administrative work related to teaching [recording grades, filling out forms, or attending meetings], but I love reading my students work, seeing evidence of their successes, and feeling like I’ve contributed to making our school a better place in which to get an education.  So, when I really think about it, I am always doing what I want to do – even when I think I’d rather be doing something else.

I think the key to trusting oneself is to follow your heart.  When you are doing what is right for you – you know it.  You feel it.

However, in order to be able to trust yourself, you also have to build a network of people who are willing to give you unwavering support, honest feedback, and the gift of truth — even when it hurts a little.  And you have to be able to trust that those people are the ones whose investment in you is in helping you find a way to express your authentic self and live a life that makes you happy.  However, you also have to realize that each individual has their own wants, needs, hopes and fears, and that sometimes even the best intentions of the people you trust will conflict with what you feel is right for you. That’s when you have to trust yourself.

As I told my audience, “You need to know that everything that has to do with your life – who you are, how you behave, what you believe and feel – is all about you, and everything that is outside of “you” has absolutely nothing to do with you.”  It’s a hard lesson to learn.  Believe me.  I know.


Slide by MAG, Photo by Sandra Arundini


The third point I made was that life is all about choosing.  Many people argue that emotions are not things that can be controlled, and on some basic level they are right.  It’s  not the emotion that can be controlled, it’s the choices about how to express those emotions that are absolutely within our control. Every single reaction, emotion, and response to every situation in our lives is about choice.

We shape our own reality.

A few terms ago, I had a student in one of my classes who was my resident skeptic.  She didn’t believe a lot of what I was teaching because it didn’t fit her view of the world, and I recognized that it was partly because she needed her views in order to fortify her own well-developed defenses.  What was interesting to me was that she never missed a class, failed to complete an assignment or hesitated to participate in a discussion.  She just needed to find her own way and all I could do was supply the information she’d need to make her own choices.

On the last day of class, I asked the students to write an honest review of the class, the materials, and the teaching methods.  I explained that since I had been evaluating them all term, it was only fair that they have the opportunity to evaluate me.  This is a difficult exercise for a lot of people because we are taught to say what we think we should say rather than what we really think. Students, in particular, don’t want to say anything critical because they recognize that they are not in positions of power, and critical comments could adversely affect their grade.  However, one of my basic beliefs is that honest feedback should always be welcomed because it’s the only way we ever learn anything.  As a result, I try and model the kind of behavior that instills trust – and then teach students diplomatic ways of expressing their truths.

My skeptic hemmed and hawed about writing the review and proclaimed, several times, “I just can’t write it, Ms. G!”  I assured her that I had no doubt that she could write it, but that she was choosing not to.  I finally reminded her that if she chose not to complete the assignment, the consequence would be that she’d lose the points.  After about 30 minutes of protesting, she got down to some serious writing.  Her responses about the class and the materials were helpful, but it was her response to the teaching methods that was fascinating.

She complimented me for directing the class and maintaining a stable, peaceful environment in the classroom, and then she added, “What probably needs improvement is her perception of reality (I guess).  She has her own opinion and she needs to be more open to the real world.  I think she lives in her own little optimistic, chirpy bubble.”

I stared at the paper for a few seconds, and then I started laughing out loud – at myself! She was right, I do choose optimism!  I choose to see the good in people and situations, I try to be understanding of human frailties, and I try to be kind whenever I can – we’re all fighting a hard battle. I recognize that this can be frustrating and annoying to those who choose to see the glass as half empty because it conflicts with their protective mechanisms.  I explained to the audience that I could see how many instructors might view this kind of statement from a student as overly critical, and they would act defensively, and that I understand why they would.  However, I chose to see my skeptic’s assessment as an indication of the trust she had placed in me – she trusted that she could tell me what she really thought, and that I would read it with an open mind and understand.

I did.  Whether or not she intended it to, it took my breath away.

To sum up my talk, I put up a slide that contained the words to a poem that is commonly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but was actually written by a woman named Bessie Stanley.  The poem is called “Success.”

To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of
false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden
patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

We all have the potential to be successful.  We just have to have the courage of our convictions and do what makes us happy — the rest will follow naturally.


8 Sep



Photo by Sandra Arduini*


I love my students.

A few weeks ago, I had a student come into one of my classes, sigh heavily as she sat down, and state in an exasperated tone, “Ms. G, I wish you taught my math class!”  Before I could ask why, a young male student in the back of the room said, “I don’t.”  As the female student turned around to read him the riot act, he held up a hand and said, “Wait! All I mean is that if Ms. G taught math, we’d be in hell.”  I stood at the front of the room and smiled as I asked, “Why is that?”  The student responded, “Because if you taught math, we would not only have to calculate stuff like how long it takes Joe to get from Detroit to Chicago traveling 60 miles per hour, we’d also have to stop and analyze why he decided to go in the first place!”  As soon as I was able to control my laughter, I told the student, “Many people feel your pain.  Many people.”

The students I have the privilege of teaching are some of the most amazing people in the world.  They are creative, insightful, smart, funny as hell and unflinchingly honest. I frequently take my students down challenging learning paths, because I not only want them to learn the material presented in the class, I also want them to learn how to use it to improve their lives.  My method of doing this is rather unconventional at times, but because my students and I trust each other, they are always willing to go along for the ride – sometimes just to see where we will wind up!  I pose theories, present ideas and ask for their take on issues, and while my students have strong opinions, and don’t always agree with my take on things, they never fail to open their minds and engage in the discussion.

Many times, I think I learn more from them than they do from me.

Last week I posed my theory on how people don’t dream enough, and shared my dream of becoming a rock star with them.  I started by asking them what their dreams were, but for some folks sharing those dreams with classmates was a little more than they were willing to risk.  So, as usual I jumped in and said I’d share mine since it’s my job as their teacher to practice what I preach. Even thought I’d already blogged about it, I still felt a little embarrassed to be spilling such a wild and unlikely fantasy to my students – some of whom are young enough to be my children – but, as usual, I forged ahead and painted a picture of what I envisioned in order to show them that they, too, have the right to dream even the most unlikely things.

When I finished sharing my rock star dream, I felt a little self-conscious because in the back of my mind I knew that what I’d shared with them was not something that would ever be a reality, and I didn’t want them to think I was completely delusional about that.  So, I laughed at myself, cracked a few jokes about my aspirations, and explained why this was not something that was likely to ever come to fruition.

I started undermining my own dream.

As they usually do, my students showed me where I was missing the obvious as they took the lesson, and ran with it.  I was flooded with positive feedback, as students exclaimed, “Oh Ms. G!  You would make a great rock star!” and “I can totally see you in a band!”  One fashion student blurted out, “I know exactly where you can get those boots, Ms. G!” as she began doing a quick web search. Soon, from around the room, students were tossing out suggestions about how I could become a rock star — albeit on a smaller scale.  They suggested taking guitar lessons or playing Guitar Hero or going to karaoke night – but thoughtfully added that I should probably have a few drinks and then wait until two or three other people bomb before I perform.

As students brainstormed ways to make my fantasy a reality the conversation began to shift, and I listened to them allowing their own dreams to begin to hatch.  As they tested out their budding wings, their classmates jumped in and encouraged them flap harder and aim higher!  The discussion continued for quite awhile and I listened to my students urge one another to investigate and research their dreams.  Some even shared the resources they already had, and, like a good teacher, I pointed out the ways in which they were actively applying the research skills we’ve been studying this term.

The lesson was important for all of us in some way or another.  We each contributed what we had, we each took away what we needed, and in the process we fed our dreams.

And that makes all the difference in the world.

*”Choose Happiness” photo by Sandra Arduini for sale on Etsy







Magic Power

1 Sep


Photo by DMT


I don’t think most people dream nearly enough.

I’m not talking about dreams that come during the night and help us make sense of all of the information our brains store in our subconscious mind, I’m talking about the big, bold daytime dreams.  The dreams in which we are the courageous hero or the daring adventurer; the dreams that take us to the outer reaches of our ambitions and desires; the dreams that, if uttered out loud, would probably cause people to shake their heads and tell us we’re crazy for even thinking such things.

I dream of becoming a rock star.

One of my favorite things to do on my half hour drive to and from work is to plug my iPod into the car stereo, crank up the volume and imagine myself as the lead guitarist in a stadium-tour band.  In my fantasy, I wear black jeans, a black tank top, and a killer pair of stiletto boots as I rip into solo after solo, belting out the lyrics to whatever song fits my mood that day.  I thrash my little heart out along side the real guitar heroes – Petrucci, Emmett, and Malmsteen – matching them chord for chord as the crowd roars for more.   No matter what else is going on in my life, for sixty minutes each day I am a strong and powerful stage performer, a skilled musician — a total badass with great hair and a screamin’ guitar.

The first person I ever mentioned my rock star fantasy to was D.  It was scary to let someone else see a dream that was just starting to flourish.  For months, I’d only allowed myself quick peeks at it, and then one day while listening to Triumph’s Magic Power,” I saw it all with perfect clarity.  I saw myself wailing on the guitar as my bass player sang,  “She’s young, now/She’s wild, now/She wants to be free!” Impulsively, I sat down at the keyboard and quickly pounded out my vision of the entire performance.

It should have been enough just to have written the scenario, but being the control freak I am, I added “listening directions” and instructed D. to crank up the song and while reading my writing. While I was excited to have him read my dream, I also cringed when I thought about how I had exposed my secret and opened myself up to potential embarrassment. After all, D. is a musician himself, and actually knows what it feels like to be on stage.  I, on the other hand, could only imagine what it would be like, and I was afraid that my description wouldn’t be accurate.  I was afraid that he’d be able to see all of the flaws and, that when he pointed them out, the budding rock star in me would be smashed like one of Pete Townsend’s guitars.  However, being the wonderful friend that he is, D. not only followed my instructions, he also quickly wrote back and told me that not only did he love the writing, but that he could actually feel the performance as he listened and read.  I was thrilled that, as a real musician, he had taken my silly little daydream seriously.

Later, I thanked him for believing in me, and exclaimed, “You never tell me any of my ideas or dreams are impossible!”  In his usual way, he calmly replied, “And I never will.”

We all need someone who supports our dreams, but more than that, we need to believe that we have the right to dream.  We need to believe that no matter how impossible it seems, we have the right to entertain the notion that we could be or do or say anything at all. We need to believe this because being able to dream the impossible dreams can lead to action on other, not-so-impossible dreams.  For me, being able to envision myself as a rock star motivated me to maintain my workout schedule, helped me shed many of my insecurities, and has made my commute something I actually look forward to every day.

I don’t harbor any illusions that I’ll ever actually be a rock star, and it’s not because I’m a pessimist.  I’m simply pragmatic.  I understand the reality, and while I do think that I could probably do just about anything I set my mind to, I also recognize that in order for me to become a rock star I would not only have to learn to play the guitar, but I would also have to kick my shoe buying habit in order to tour dive bars in a cramped vehicle.  Oh, and then there’s the small matter of learning how to sing on key.  The reality is that I don’t have the time, energy or motivation to devote myself to the task of becoming a rock star, but that doesn’t mean I can’t dream about it.

And I can definitely buy myself a pair of kick-ass stiletto boots.

My Way

18 Aug


Photo by DMT


Frank Sinatra on Crack saved me.

Last week I made a big, bold – and impulsive – declaration about living a dream.  When I made it, I believed it.  I was feeling excited about the possibilities and confident in my ability to make things happen.  I was ready to elope!  Over the weekend the realities began to set in.

As anyone who has ever planned for a move knows, there are a million things that need to be done before the actual move can happen, and when you start talking about moving to a whole new state, the tasks begin to exponentially multiply.  This weekend I dove into the dream by pulling out all of my financial records for the past year in order to pull together a budget.  Oh please, don’t look at me like that.  Most Americans don’t have a budget spreadsheet that calculates everything down to the penny.  Or maybe that’s just me.

The point is that once I pulled out all of the paperwork and had it spread out on my desk, I started to feel overwhelmed.  I started thinking about all of the other tasks I’d need to complete – culling my possessions so that I can downsize from 750 sq. ft. of living space to 450 sq. ft., packing my remaining possessions, finding someone to load them up, move them, and unload them 1000 miles away – and it made me want to scrap the budget and head out to the pool.  My stubbornness won out, and I stayed in and worked on the budget.  A few hours later, as I saved my Excel spreadsheet, I realized that I’d only input two months worth of data. Again, the pool beckoned, and this time I gave in.

The truth is – I’m scared.

I’m scared because I want to make this dream a reality so badly that I can taste it, but I also know that I don’t have control over what will or will not happen.  I’m scared because I’ve put this dream out there in the blog universe and shared it with everyone I know.  I’m scared because I want to do this “right” even though I know that there is no right way to do anything.

I also know that people who love and care about me are a little concerned about this latest development.  I tend to be a wide-eyed optimist who views the world in a positive light. It baffles those who aren’t able to understand how I maintain sunny outlook, and it worries those who have watched me leap – and fall. My friends and family worry about me because they think my optimism is someday going to get me killed, and New York’s reputation isn’t helping matters.

Some of it is an issue of physical safety.  I’m the kind of person who truly believes that you get back what you put out there, so if I’m just polite and respectful to the drug dealers on the corner, they’ll reciprocate.  If there were a contest, I’d probably be voted “Person Most Likely to Be Killed While Introducing Herself in a Dangerous Neighborhood.” The realist in me understands that I’m not going to stop a bullet just by being nice to it, but the idealist believes that in order for the bullet not to fly in the first place someone has to start somewhere.  This does not allay the fears of the people who love me.

When I told D. that I had found a beautiful Hamilton Heights apartment that was also totally affordable, he responded “Mary, there’s a reason it’s nice AND affordable. It’s in Harlem, looks like it’s near Columbia University, which is not a nice area.”  And I replied, “But can’t we all just get along?  I mean, if I’m in my optimistic, chirpy bubble what can go wrong?” His lack of response let me know that the irresistible force had met the immovable object.

Since stereotypes about New Yorkers and their rude attitudes abound, other people worry that my Pollyanna-style approach to life will cause me to be eaten alive in the big city.

Recently I was talking about this move with a very dear and trusted friend.  T. looked at me and said, “I was telling my daughter about you.  I told her how you always see everything so positively and that you always look for the good in every person.  You’re the kind of person who would ask a bank robber if they’d done it because they needed money for food! You need to protect yourself a little more otherwise you’re going to get used and hurt. New York isn’t going to be safe for you!”

I smiled as I replied, “I know, but here’s what I understand about myself.  I look at the world in a positive light because I’ve tried operating from the self-protection side, and you know what?  It didn’t make me happy.  I want to see things in a positive light because that’s what I believe is possible, and I’m happiest when I’m living in a way that leaves the world around me a little brighter.” I understood exactly what she meant, though, and I took it as a compliment because I know we love and respect each other.  I really do believe that, in the end, only kindness matters.

I’m still scared, though. I don’t want to let people down, but more than that, I don’t want to let me down.

And that’s where Frank enters the story.

When I get ready to teach my routine includes tuning into a radio station that I laughingly call “Crack Radio” [it’s actually Doug 93.1 FM].  The station’s tag line is “We play everything,” and  do they ever.  The result is a wacky mix that never fails to strike a chord in me.  When I tuned in yesterday the Boss was belting out “No Surrender,” which was followed by “Only the Good Die Young,” and “I Won’t Back Down.” I laughed out loud and shook my head as I returned to getting ready – and thinking about my dream-related fears.  I had just settled in to the beginnings of a “flash flood” (when my brain opens up and unleashes the full fury of my thoughts in a torrential downpour) when I heard the quiet opening notes.

Sinatra’s strong, clear voice floated out of the little speaker, “And now, the end is near/So I face the final curtain.”   His tone was calm, but resigned to the knowledge that this was the end. “Regrets, I’ve had a few;/But then again, too few to mention/I did what I had to do/And saw it through without exemption.”  Both the music and Frank’s voice rose as he exclaimed “I’m sure there were times you knew/When I bit off more than I could chew.”  I stood still, listening to him confidently declare “I faced it all and I stood tall/And did it my way!”  Tears welled up in my eyes, as the Chairman lowered his voice and sang “I’ve loved, I’ve laughed, and cried/I’ve had my fill; my share of losing.” Frank understood me, and as the music swelled for the final verse, my tears flowed freely.  I lifted my chin, straightened my shoulders, and faced myself in the mirror as Frank belted out the final verse, “For what is a man, what has he got?/If not himself, then he has naught./To say the things he truly feels;/And not the words of one who kneels./The record shows I took the blows -/And did it my way!”

At that moment, I knew that no matter how scared I might feel as I work toward New York City, I’m not going to quit.  I can’t control what’s going to happen at the end of this journey, but I can say with absolute certainty – I’m going to do it my way.

And I know that Old Blue Eyes has my back.

People Get Ready

14 Aug


Photo by DMT


During the past several years, I’ve often wondered what’s taken me so long to make the decision and begin to work toward moving to New York City. The answer to this question is one that simultaneously makes me ashamed and proud.

My initial trip to New York, while opening my eyes to a whole new world, also left me feeling insecure and out of place. As J. and I walked the streets of New York, I felt like a country bumpkin.  New Yorkers, even the scruffiest of them, are stylish people, and as I looked around and observed the crowds, I felt old, fat and out of place.  Returning to Michigan only served to exacerbate the feeling.  I’m loathe to admit it, but two years ago I didn’t think I was “good enough” for New York City.

I was overweight, out of shape, and lacking style and pizazz in my wardrobe, makeup and hair. I was Eliza Dolittle before Henry Higgins.  Cinderella before her Fairy Godmother showed up and waved her wand. The proverbial Ugly Duckling before that whole swan thing.  Okay, maybe I’m being a little dramatic.  Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of other things going for me – I am a kind, intelligent person who is an excellent teacher and is funny as hell – I just didn’t have the outward appearance that reflected these qualities in a way that would fit into a New York City lifestyle.

Once I’d broken up with my ex-partner, I started to make some big changes. I moved into an apartment complex that offered a gym membership as part of my lease, and started working out regularly.  I quit eating fast food, at first, because I could no longer afford the expense, but as I watched my body begin to change, I realized that eliminating it from my diet had also meant I’d eliminated the calories.  I switched over to more healthy foods, and even began cooking, which “shocked and awed” many people who know me.  Slowly, the pounds came off and I began to feel more energetic and attractive.  When I hit a plateau in the spring of 2009, I hired a personal trainer to advise me about how to get better results from my workouts and counsel me about my nutrition issues, and with his help I lost another 60 pounds.

The weight loss meant that I also needed to replace my clothing, for this I turned to the Fashion Design students at the college where I teach general education classes.  My students were more than happy to advise me, and recommended that I wear shorter skirts and higher heels.  At first, this felt ridiculous.  A 43-year old teacher wearing above-the-knee skirts and 3″ heels?  Unacceptable!  Impossible!  Outrageous!  Well…maybe just one short skirt.  And those high heels are kind of cute.

My students were unflaggingly kind and enthusiastic despite my resistance.  They encouraged and applauded every small change I made, and continued to make suggestions and offer advice.  Every couple of months, J. would travel to Michigan from Chicago to shop with me and slowly but surely I acquired a wardrobe that reflected the more fashionable woman I wanted to be.  As I lost more weight, it became easier to find stylish bargains, and I was excited as I moved from the world of Plus Size Xs to the world of S/M/L.  The moment of triumph came last spring when J. (who is a size 6, and can wear anything) and I were perusing the sale racks at the Gap, and I wondered out loud if a t-shirt would fit me.  J. encouraged me to try it on, and lo and behold, I found that I could fit into shirts from the Gap!

A year before my Gap shopping experience, D. did me a favor for which I will never truly be able to thank him.  For years I’d been a bottle blond, I don’t remember when or why I’d started dying my hair blond, but it had become a habit and I wasn’t sure I liked it anymore.  I mentioned this to D. during a conversation, and he said that he’d always had a personal preference for brunettes, but that was just him.  Since I respect him as a friend and an artist, his casual comment caused me to start wondering if perhaps brunettes were the ones who have more fun, and as usual, I read too much into what he’d said, and heard him daring me to take a chance and try something different (and as usual, his response was “What the hell are you talking about?”).

By the next day I was at the store buying hair dye and making the switch.  It was unsettling, but once I’d gotten used the dramatic change, I began to feel like I’d come home to myself.  As a blond, I had worn more dramatic makeup, but as a brunette, I didn’t need as much since my hair color complimented my skin tone instead of detracting from it.  I ditched my red lipstick and dramatic eye makeup, trading it in for more natural shades of eyeshadow and lip gloss.  The results were dramatic, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.  I felt more confident and….did I dare to admit it?  I began to feel sexy enough to flirt with New York.

As the months rolled on, I learned new tricks for improving my hair and makeup, and I bought more skirts and heels.  I was amassing a New York-worthy wardrobe, and I finally felt like I had style.

These days, I wear a combination of clothes from Vive La Femme, the Avenue, Lane Bryant, the Gap, and Ralph Lauren, and my shoes are mostly from Nine West.  No matter whether I am at work or play, I feel fashionable and that makes me feel confident.

It’s been a long, challenging road, and I’m nowhere near the end, but now I feel like I’ve got enough confidence and style to say “Yes!” to a date with New York City.

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