Tag Archives: Motivational Writing

Live Like We’re Dying

26 Oct

Photo by DMT

I am a sliver lining kind of woman.

No matter how awful things seem at any given time, I always seem to be able to find the good side of any situation.

A few weeks ago, J. asked me how I maintain my fairly consistent positive outlook on life.  I had to think about it for a while because I had no clear cut answer for her.  Some days, I’m not really sure how I do it [many of my students might suggest it’s the result of watching the film Peaceful Warrior twenty-five times], and some days I’m not very successful at it.  I thought about her question for a few days, and took a close look at what things contribute to my ability to maintain an optimistic attitude, and I’ve come up with a few lists of things that help me.

For the next few posts, I’d like to offer up these lists and ask those of you who read, to contribute whatever it is that helps you maintain an optimistic outlook on life.

I’d like to say from the outset that these are the things that have worked for me – your mileage will vary – so take what you can use and set the rest aside.  Trust your instincts and do what feels right for you, but keep an open mind and remember that what doesn’t work today, might work tomorrow or next week or next year.

Optimism 101- Mary’s Reading List

1. Simple Abundance – Sarah ban Breathnatch — I’ve read this book of daily meditations for women for the past four years.  Some of what she writes is unrelated to anything in my life, but a lot of her short essays hit at the heart of something I’m struggling with, and I’m finding that with this latest reading, the essays are like old friends that I love, but haven’t seen in a while – familiar and comforting, but new again.  [Lest you think I’m a goody-two-shoes, on my earnest days, I jump in ready to believe, but on my cynical days, I roll my eyes and wonder who in the world could be this optimistic.  That usually makes me laugh at myself].

2. Choosing Happiness – Stephanie Dowrick — This book is made up of short readings about how to develop, cultivate and maintain happiness.  It is full of helpful offerings that are designed to give the reader a way to envision their life in a more positive way, and then to follow through to reflect that outlook.  I frequently turn to this book when I am experiencing a difficulty that causes me to revert back to unproductive [read: negative] behaviors.

3. A Girl Named Zippy – Haven Kimmell — Forget the fact that Kimmel is the author of my all-time favorite book, The Solace of Leaving Early, Zippy is quite possibly the single funniest memoir I’ve ever read.  Seriously, how could you not love Zippy’s mother? She tells Zippy that instead of being birthed at a hospital, she’d been acquired in a fair-ground trade with wandering gypsies in exchange for a special purse. As Zippy is taking in this information her mother throws in an “oh by the way” comment that Zippy had been born with a tail, which they’d had removed so she could wear pants.  When I need a laugh-out-loud read, I reach for this book.

4. Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand — This might seem like an odd choice for me since Rand’s book basically extols the virtues of unchecked capitalism, but I read this book with D. last summer and I loved it.  I read it less as a treatise on how to get rid of socialism, and more as a psychological drama about how individuals wrestle with making decisions about what they “should” do and what they want to do.  I loved Dagny Taggert because she was a strong woman who wanted to do what was right for herself, her company, and her dream – and none of her decisions were easy.  I liked the book even more after a new biography about Rand revealed that she violated the ideals she’d written about in Atlas in order to get the book published.  Breaking rules in pursuit of a dream makes me cheer!

5. Stone Butch Blues – Leslie Feinberg — If I could make this required reading for every individual in the world, I would.  A novel based on Feinberg’s real-life experiences being gay and transgender in Buffalo, New York during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, this book breaks down the ways in which homophobia is insidiously woven into the fabric of every aspect of our lives.  And yet, even in the most horrendous experiences, Feinberg manages to hold onto the thread of human dignity and the power of friendship and kindness.  If you can walk away from this book unaffected, then you need to find the Emerald City and ask the Wizard of Oz for a heart.

6. Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live – Martha Beck — This book took me a long time to read because it was frightening to have someone who has never met me, seem to know me so well.  Dr. Beck is a well know life coach who has written numerous books and also writes a monthly column for Oprah Magazine.  I love her writing because she is forthright, but understanding and kind.  This book helped me understand what it would take to actually live the life I love, and love the life I live.

7. Life Strategies: Doing What Works, Doing What Matters – Dr. Phil McGraw — I love this book because it is a no-nonsense, in-your-face, wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee kind of book.  When someone recommended this book to me, I rolled my eyes and sighed heavily, the person recommending it said “I know, I think he’s hokey too, but give this book a chance!”  I’m glad I did.  Dr. Phil’s ten Life Laws are probably the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve ever read, and I love his unsentimental approach.  He recognizes the difficulties we all face, but ultimately says “Man up, and do something about it.”

8. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency – Alexander McCall Smith — Actually, I own the entire series of the Mma. Ramotswe mysteries, and I love every book in the series.  Mma Ramotswe is a wonderful, beautiful, and resourceful character who is absolutely human.  I love her acknowledgment of the ways in which all of the pieces fit together – of a mystery or a community.  She radiates love, and as a result, I love her, too.

9.  A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose – Eckhart Tolle – This book surprised me when I read it because I was expecting to cast it aside after a chapter or two.  I thought Tolle’s combination of philosophy and spirituality would be far too over the top for a pragmatic dreamer.  I was wrong.  What I found when I read this book was that I was fully engrossed in what Tolle was explaining, and I actually ended up reading the entire book in a weekend because I couldn’t put it down.  What resonated the most for me, at the time, was Tolle’s explanation of how the ego drives negative action through fear.  Critics argue that Tolle’s discussion is nothing new, but it was a new way for me to understand my own life, and I appreciated it.

10. The Women of Brewster Place – Gloria Naylor – This is one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve ever read.  Naylor captures the spirit of a community of women in a way that no other author ever has.  This book is uplifting and heartbreaking.  It underscores the courage and dogged determination of the women who live in Brewster Place, and the writing is absolutely breathtaking.

I know this seems like an odd mishmash of reading materials – it is.  It is in no way comprehensive [as if any list ever could be].  This list simply represents books that have been useful to me as I’ve searched for answers to my millions of questions.  And after reading these books, I find that not only do I not have any definitive answers, I have actually come up with more questions.

Read it Again Books, my local used bookstore, and Amazon.com love me.

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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.

Dreams

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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