A man at the gym asked me what my plans were for the weekend.
“Camping,” I said. “And swimming in fresh water.” What bliss! “It’s been my one goal for the summer. Lakes. Swim in lakes.”
“Not a fan of the beach, huh?”
This stopped me. I shrugged. Who doesn’t like the beach?
“No, it’s not that.” I put my hand on my heart and leaned in. “It’s just about going towards what I love.”
“Oh.” The stranger at the gym began to focus with great intensity on tying his shoes.
Does it sound odd? “Move towards what you love.” Maybe it is awkward to say such a thing during a casual exchange, but I don’t know how else to give it voice. A person don’t need to dislike wineries or shopping or baking to find herself doing less of these things. It’s only because she learns that her joy is in rock climbing, playing mandolin, or growing basil on her patio. Letting go of half-pleasures is a necessary cost of orienting towards bliss.
For years, I have believed a rich life is a varied life. “Balance,” say The Many, “is the key to wellness.”
What if balance is trickier than we think? Maybe we are simply excusing our piecemeal approaches to entertaining our fragmented selves. What if we know our purpose, our rightness, is in this small assortment of things here, and the more we do them fully, and the more we do them with our whole attention, the richer the flavor of our lives?
What if less variety, not more, is the secret spice?
Certainly, engaged citizenship requires baseline familiarity with a broad array of topics that affect our shared residency on this planet. Scan the headlines, visit a museum, serve someone in need, and learn a craft. Also, though, have the courage to choose. This one gift is my calling. Or maybe,This slim collection of activities are the homes of my true Yes.
To follow that call can be so very scary. What if I am wrong? What if I am no good? What if I fail to attend to all these other toys and creatures clamoring for my attention and I miss something big?
I can only say this: To know your love is a precious thing. It is the rarest treasure, and you have to dive, over and over, into those suffocating sea-caves without anybody pointing the way. Sometimes you can only see a glint of it and the closer you get, the darker it seems. You have to believe yes, it is gold, when all around people are hinting that you are a fool and all your plunder is rust.
Your hands begin to wander back to the mundane entertainments. Your mind whispers that it would rather be at ease with simple tasks than faced with the raw tenderness of its own unfurling.
By all means, avoid the call. It’s okay. Your avoidance will not last long.
Once you know, once you have spoken that truth aloud backward and down into your own belly, there is no turning back.
Then the TV is no longer a foe, the bottle has no allure, the 270 “friends” and their carbonated noise up on the surface of the earth are rendered silent. You no longer need to retreat from the things you believed were holding you back, and you do not need to name what you do not like. Instead, you emerge towards your own self becoming.
You lower your thirsty body into the cool waters. You know you have arrived.
Move towards what you love. What you leave behind cannot break your heart, because your heart is only just now being born.


In the Bank, part 2

If time is money, then Pay Yourself First. In the Bank, part I.

Behind the pressing noise of the divorce, the quiet question nagging at me over the past 18 months has been this:  How do I invest those rare hours each week in order to build a foundation for Bug’s and my future?
I figured my only hope was a windfall from one of three sources:

1)      A man

2)      A bestselling book

3)      A more lucrative job
Because options 1 and 2 are the stuff of soap operas, I hurled all my initial energy into making myself a more marketable career gal. A scattershot approach was the best I could manage. I took on every additional responsibility I could at work. If even the slightest gap appeared between our team’s offerings and students’ interests, a project took root. I began to apply for a PhD. I looked into and Organizational Development training program. I explored a Public Management graduate certificate.  Every conference or seminar that came across my calendar, I attended. “Need help organizing it? I’m your gal!” I learned names. I shook every hand.
Where has this left me? With the same income I had a year ago, without a single new job prospect, and exhausted.
As 2011 wound down and the start of the spring semester neared, I kept thinking, Something has to hit, right? Even as my ammunition dried up, I continued to shoot high and wide. I signed up for and then dropped one graduate class after another, desperately searching for a way to make use of the tuition waiver my job provides. What kind of bonehead wastes the opportunity to take courses for free? Especially one who wants to beef up her resume, and needs to make More Money?
Besides, I love learning.  The challenge and the demands of scheduled assignments keep me hopping, and those oh-so paternal expectations of the instructor force me to reach. When I am in a class, I dig into the corners of my wallet of time, and what little I find I hand over to the syllabus and its personal counterpart: the instructor. I do not bother with Facebook or TV. I only say yes to invitations that compel me and do not conflict with assignment due dates. The teacher is important enough to pay first, and I am frugal, and I keep my receipts. The prize, supposedly, is my own improved scholarly understanding of something or other.
The problem? Every syllabus I read made me wilt like a dust bowl dogwood. I love to learn, but “Human Resources for the Public Sector?”  Please. Stick a fork in my eye.
Here is what I realized. I was looking at each of the three items on my Man-Book- Job grocery list as nouns. Goals. Finish lines to cross. But if I shift the angle a bit, if I turn them into verbs, what happens?
1)      Make friends. Go on dates. Enjoy getting to know people. Welcome connection and even love, should it choose to come around.

2)      Write. Then write some more.

3)      Work with focus and enthusiasm. Seek opportunities. Build relationships and skills. Stay one step ahead.
This lifting and shifting of my gaze peeled the haze from my surroundings. The sudden brightness brought into focus the formerly obscured direction of travel. In Tuesday’s post, “Love: Letters,” I worked my way around to admitting that my One True Love is and always has been the ink. If I treasure writing best of all, and practice sometimes brings improvement, why not Pay Myself First? No writing classes are offered here on my campus? So what? For goodness sake, design a course! If one of my students wants to study Computational General Equilibrium and no one in our department teaches it, I tell them to develop a syllabus, find someone who can guide the learning, and go for it.
So, I did. I designed a syllabus. The course is called “Process, Practice, Publish.” It lists eleven learning objectives, including these:

  • Integrate a writing practice of approximately one hour (1000 words) into the daily routine
  • Maintain writing “storehouses”—in print and in electronic format – for organizing writing products and research

It details four sub-sections of course expectations, like this one:

  • One hour of editing is required weekly. This can be editing a single piece or a collection. This editing should take place in a discrete segment of time, separate from the writing process.

It includes a time line describing weekly assignments from January to May, including these:

  • By February 7th, identify one writing group or class, and join for regular meetings with fellow writers.
  • By  February 21st, develop an annotated list of 3 publications and their submission guidelines.

Three weeks in, and I am already gathering speed like Hi-Ho Silver.  It is a marvel, this concept. Those few feathered strands of time try to slip loose, but now I have simple instructions for how to braid them into reins to keep this filly at a full gallop.
Who is the instructor? The toughest of the tough cookies. And hell yeah, I’m going to pay her first.


Mind the Gap

The traditional approach to change is to look for the problem, do a diagnosis, and find a solution. The primary focus is on what is wrong or broken; since we look for problems, we find them. By paying attention to problems, we emphasize and amplify them.

Sue Hammond, The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry

The bike was the key. It was liberation. It was the only way to get to the shopping centers with all their pre-teen allure: Montgomery Donuts, the movie theater, dark alcoves and roaming packs of boys. By way of the broad and quiet neighborhood streets, I could meander up to the busy stretch of what passed as “town,” spend a few bucks on comic books and Twix, and feel like I had really gone somewhere.

I have never been very good at riding a bike. I wobble widely. When another rider calls, “On your left,” I throw a gaze over my left shoulder and end up veering directly into her path. This is still the case, despite several decades of practice.

At 11, I was as already a full-grown klutz. For some reason on this one particular day, my sister and I chose to take the more direct yet less forgiving route to the edge of our neighborhood. We turned ourselves out along a roaring stretch of Old Georgetown Road. Six lanes of frenzied traffic whipped past as we made our way to Wildwood Shopping Center for our sanitized version of adolescent mayhem. We rode on the narrow sidewalks, confident in our immortality and in the protective capacity of those three inches of curb.

At every intersection, a handy little dip in the curb for folks on axles – strollers, wheelchairs, skateboards and the like – ferried us smoothly down to the road and back up again. I am sure the sidewalk engineering choice was not intended for cyclists, but considering how few pedestrians actually frequented those loud and dangerous thoroughfares, we made happy use of them. I could zoom down the sidewalk, slowing just enough to make sure no one was turning off the main road onto a neighborhood street, and buzz right through the intersection up onto the opposite path. I was too poor a cyclist to learn how to “pop a wheelie,” as it was called. The sidewalk design saved me slowing to a stop, walking, and lifting my bike up over the curb.

I was zipping joyously along, picking up speed as I became more confident in my ten-speed prowess. I looked ahead. One of the intersections neared. My stomach leapt into my throat. An enormous telephone pole was rammed right into the sidewalk just beyond the opposite ramp. I saw it. I could not slow. I took its measure, and I knew I had enough room to veer around it. I watched it and I locked my gaze on it, calculating the distance, determined to miss it.


My bike flew out from under me. I body-slammed into the pole, face pressed against the splintered wood and old staples. My arms wrapped around its girth as my poor bicycle wobbled and fell into the gutter. My sister screeched to a halt, whipped around, and burst out laughing. “You are so weird! How could you not see that pole?”

I slid down and did my best not to burst into tears. We rescued my bike and made the rest of our limping way to the strip mall.

How could I not see that pole? That was the wrong question. I did see the pole. I was looking right at the pole! My question was this: how could I crash into something I was working so hard to avoid?

Anyone who has put a kid on training wheels or taught a teenager to drive knows the answer. You do not look at where you do not want to go. The gaze is more powerful than any of us really understands. Look, and your mind, posture, and even behavior will veer in the direction of your vision. For this reason, any student of the road learns to look at where she intends to go. She looks ahead.

My sister, with her natural physical aptitude and addiction to speed, had learned this without knowing how to articulate it. She focused on the gap and squeezed herself through it. I fixed on the obstacle and met it.

Today, in the face of several mounting so-called problems at work and at home, I needed a reminder of how to direct my gaze at the open road instead of the flashing lights and gaping potholes. I dipped back into Appreciative Inquiry’s fount of refreshing thinking.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a tool that has gained its foothold in the worlds of Organizational Development and leadership practice, offers up practical approaches for drawing upon the power and possibility in people and systems. Work, love, parenting, friendships – hell, life itself – all are riddled challenges. This is especially true if they are seen as such. Pulling from AI’s handy toolbox is a great way to training the mind away from problems and towards capacity when trying to build a way forward.

AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential. . . AI deliberately, in everything it does, seeks to work from accounts of this “positive change core”—and it assumes that every living system has many untapped and rich and inspiring accounts of the positive. Link the energy of this core directly to any change agenda and changes never thought possible are suddenly and democratically mobilized.

David L. Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change

Through a series of questions about the system when it is at its best, AI allows participants to give voice to stories that generate power and animate dormant resources for building towards a vision. Instead of a problem to be solved, the task at hand is a mystery to be explored full of opportunities to be discovered. The people involved are rich sources of insight. It is a choice to perceive of things this way.

Today, I began again to wean myself from panic, and returned to the practice of asking the generative question. Little by little, the answers offer up source material for telling a new kind of story. Learning how to do this takes intention. I am as much a klutz here as I am on two wheels, but, as ever, learning is exhilarating. (More on the specifics of AI and the questions can be found here.)

Dissect a fear and watch it thrive. Describe despair and feel it spill out of its container. Delineate the barriers to your greatness, and notice how quickly they harden into cinder-block and razor wire.

In the inverse lies solace: You can make real the very thing to which you attend. Ask the right sorts of questions, and watch the future bloom.

Be careful where you set your sights. Yours is an awesome power. That telephone pole is there, for sure. But so is the gap. The open path has been there all along. Hop back on the bike. No matter how you wobble, the way ahead is waiting to meet you.



The iron leaves a streak of gray silt on my blouse. Before I can react, it is cooked in. I have no time for this, but it is my own fault for taking a shortcut. I could have purchased the distilled water, but I chose to fill the iron from the tap. It seems an unnecessary hardship, the task of adding an item so rarely purchased to the list. To actually remember to buy water? With everything else life demands? But now, this. A stain, and I will have to find a way to repair it, to rub the iron over salted paper, to make things right.

It seems such an extreme process. Is it really necessary to cook invisible hitchhikers out of the substance? To force it through those narrow passageways and collect it, so much reduced? This rarified version cannot really be so different from its original stuff. How is it possible that all those microscopic bits, things the naked eye cannot even discern, are such a burden?

It is odd to have this spare moment for ironing. It is odder still to have a spare ounce of gray matter for musing about it. Now that we have entered December, I can tackle some of the lingering items from last month’s neglected list. November was a bear. On November 2nd, a co-worker informed me we had just begun National Novel Writing Month. Sounds nice, but doesn’t everything has a stretch of the calendar these days? Oatmeal Appreciation Week. Lute Celebration Day.

No, no, my friend explained. You write a whole novel in the month of November. 50,000 words between the 1st and the 30th. He had started it already. I was dumbstruck. One day in, and I was already almost two days behind! I couldn’t wait. The opportunity to write towards such an ambitious goal was too delicious to pass up, no matter how strong the other demands on my time. That evening, I went home lacking an idea, an outline, or even a character. I did, however, have everything I needed to begin: a wide-open canvas and the thrill of the hunt.

It turns out it is not so very hard to write 2000 words a day. As long as I ignored my tired and crossing eyes, the 13 items on my to-do list, and all the tempting pulls away from the pen, I had no problem producing copious, overflowing quantities of words. It’s simply a matter of sitting one’s backside down at the page and commanding the hand to go. I did not have time to doubt the process. The choice to achieve the goal is itself the act of faith. Whatever source I drew upon was abundant, it was far bigger than I am, and it was unconcerned with anything going on up on the skin of my days. It flowed on its own, right on past me if I didn’t dip into it. As soon as I did, up it welled.

The juice that spilled out to the surface may be crude. It stuck to everything, including itself. It took no identifiable shape. But it was the raw material, and it was rich, tasty stuff.

I crammed writing into every nook and cranny of my waking hours. Previously undiscovered pockets of time revealed themselves. After Bug goes to bed, I found energy I never knew I possessed because I usually tell myself I am too foggy. My lunch hour was long enough for both a 30-minute walk and 1000 words. Waiting in Tee’s parking lot for 10 minutes, grabbing the first open seat on the metro, tapping my toes in the doctor’s office waiting room. As long as I shed the habits of distraction and the illusory need for ritual, as long as I simply opened the book and started writing, no matter what my state of mind, I could – I can – write 2000 words in 45 minutes flat.

Two choices I made starting out on November 2nd: First, I was going to finish it. Second, I was not going to sacrifice any other essential element of my life to finish it. These two things require a quick and dirty assessment of what, in fact, qualifies as “essential.”

These things are my necessaries:

  • Giving my 8-hour work day my all.
  • Being an attentive mother and playmate to my kid.
  • Running, dancing, sleeping, and eating well.
  • A bit of time with friends.
  • Caring for the dog.
  • Flossing.
  • And, because the success of the whole endeavor turns on the axis of a secure home, being at least a tolerable housemate to my forbearing parents.

The two choices – finishing it and not giving up the important stuff to do so – required sanding down and fitting together the edges of all the tasks in a day. I had to learn quickly how to move between them without chatter and nonsense. Moments became intentional. Yes, a well-balanced gal needs her version of loafing. For quiet, I lit a candle and stretched my body across the living room floor. When done, I took a breath and returned to the page.

Such an endeavor comes with a cost. Among other things, writing fiction means not reading up for the LSATs or the GREs. It means not reading at all. No news, no poems, no advice columns, no blogs by friends. The list of things I do not do when I write is infinite. Worrying about the not-doing was yet another thing I did not allow myself to do.

The main cost is not anything like a loss. It is a purification. In a few short weeks, I discovered this: As I increase the heat and push writing through the narrow spaces between the necessaries, what is left behind is inessential. The things I do not do – things like watching TV, unfocused shopping excursions, Facebook, and pawing through my closet trying on five outfits before deciding what to wear to work – are junk. Dregs and residue. They weigh down my vision, clog up my brain, and leave a sticky residue choking the pores of my days.

Ignore the task of distillation, and the stains become inseparable from the fabric. The work to repair the tarnished journey is far more of a burden than the simple discipline of practice.

My birthday gift to myself on November 28th was to cross the finish line. After work and cake and gifts and Bug’s bedtime ritual, I dragged myself to my room and wrote the 50,000th word. The next evening, I grafted an ending onto one limb of the story and dumped the whole thing on the NaNoWriMo website.  It’s mostly garbage, but it is the raw beginnings of another novel. And I completed all 52,800 words of it in 28 days.

Distillation is not a gentle process. Heat and aggressive focus: these are the things that burn apart the elemental makeup and offer up a concentrated supply of the pure and right.

Write on.