Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The examined life

The top of the chalkboard in my high school Western Civilization class was emblazoned with this quote:

"The unexamined life is not worth living." - Socrates

A sophomoric sophomore or an eleventh grader acting like an 11-year-old would sometimes venture to alter the quote, either by erasing part of it or by adding letters here or a word there. Each time this happened, we would snicker and await the reaction of our teacher - Mr. L.R. Smith - when he entered the room.

It was always the same. He simply rewrote the quote and started class as though nothing had happened.

At first glance, it's obvious that Mr. Smith was following classic teaching (and parenting) advice by not reacting to this non-destructive, rebellious behavior from the children he was charged with teaching. I believe there was much more to his lack of a reaction, however. By writing the quote in chalk instead of using a more permanent medium, he was actually encouraging us to alter it. And, by altering it, we were doing exactly what he wanted us to do. We were examining our lives.

I clearly remember the only time I altered the quote. My first serious relationship had just come to an end, and I was devastated. Feeling uncharacteristically rebellious, I walked into the classroom, erased the first two words of the quote, then slouched in my seat and waited for Mr. Smith's reaction. He entered the classroom, paused for just a moment, and then - as always - fixed the quote and started class. But from where I was sitting, I could see his brow furrow just a little.

I spent the next ten minutes avoiding his eyes. In that furrowing of his brow, I could tell Mr. Smith was deeply concerned for whichever student in the class thought that life was not worth living. I'm sure he quickly determined that I was the student in question, but by the end of the class he no longer had cause for concern. The mortifying scenario of being escorted to see my adviser because I was suicidal was enough for me to get my act together. I engaged in class as I never had, and by the end of the hour I felt better than I had since the first weeks of the ill-fated relationship.

Did I truly believe that life was not worth living that day? Not really. But when we are young, we tend to think the smallest misfortune is a devastating calamity. The same is true when we become too self-involved as adults. Invariably, we will all have times when we question why we should bother to keep moving forward. It is during these times when we are given the gift of a moment - be it the furrowed brow of a friend or a vibrant double rainbow after a downpour - to stop and examine our lives. In that examination, I believe we will always find something that makes life worth living.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

It all comes out in the wash

Sunday is a special day for me. It's the one day I can sleep late, even if sometimes that's only by half an hour. I don't feel compelled to check my email or - on some weeks - even turn on my cell phone. Sunday is my day to relax, hang out with the kids, and watch Mike play video games. In short, Sunday is my "guaranteed" day off.

But you can't fully appreciate the sun without clouds, and there is one big cloud that hangs over my Sundays.


In the litany of household chores, doing laundry has to be the least satisfying and the least appreciated. Unlike cooking, washing the dishes, or grouting the shower, laundry is never truly "done." Even if you insist that your whole family spend Sunday in their birthday suits just so all their clothes can get washed, there is always the stray sock or pair of jeans that somehow escapes your notice and the washing machine, never mind that you walked by it a half dozen times while hauling baskets of soiled clothing through the house to the laundry room. And how many fingers do you have left over after you've counted the number of times you thanked your mom for washing your underwear?

Big, fluffy, spring-fresh-smelling cloud.

Even though it is a thankless and unsatisfying job, there are some small joys for the laundress. While doing the laundry occupies the hands, the mind remains free to wander. This makes laundry day the perfect time to answer some of life's most baffling questions. Apropos laundry, I spent some time today considering the classic case of the lost sock. I am convinced that - under a certain, as-yet-undetermined set of conditions - socks are magically transformed into dryer sheets. How else can one explain how after eight loads of laundry I am short three socks, but I have eleven dryer sheets?

Another small joy of laundry day is discovering lost treasures. When Ian first realized that those little pouches in his pants were the perfect places to stow "things," I made a rule that every member of the family was responsible for emptying his or her own pockets. Any items left in pockets become the property of the laundress. Everyone abides by the pocket-purging rule for the most part, but every so often something will take a spin in my washing machine. Usually my treasures amount to a few peppermint disks (minus the red stripes, which disappear at some point in the wash cycle,) but I do score a five dollar bill on occasion. My elation lasts until I realize that the money fell out of the pocket of my jeans. My greatest thrill is to find one of the kids' toys, squeaky and sparkling clean, in the bottom of the washing machine. I forfeit my property rights in those instances, instead taking my reward by watching their faces brighten when I present them with a treasure they hadn't realized was lost.

Even though the laundry is never completely done, there comes a point each Sunday when I consider the chore finished. Though I know the hampers will only be completely empty for a few hours, I experience a sense of fulfillment as I tuck neatly folded t-shirts into drawers, hang jeans in closets, and marvel at the beauty of the sunset as it colors the clouds. With the celerity of life during the week, I sometimes feel that I do not give my family the care and attention I should. Doing this one small thing for them on my day off doesn't make up for the rest of the week, but I trust that in the end it will all come out in the wash.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Everthing I need to know in life, I learned from the weatherman

"There are two types of people in this world...."

That phrase is the introduction to some of the finest examples of egotism on the market. The most conventional way of completing the phrase, "There are two types of people in this world," is to put oneself (and whomever one is addressing) in the lofty position of being "right" and everyone else in the inferior position of being "wrong" or in some way lacking, at least by the speaker's self-centered set of standards.

Then there is the oversimplification factor. There are, of course, many types of people in this world. How boring would it be if there were only two?

Life isn't about me, and life isn't that simple.

But, when it comes to living life to the fullest, there are two types of people in this world: those who jump in with both feet and live with the consequences of their actions, and those who over-think every little detail to the point that no action ever gets taken.

More often than not, I find myself in the latter category.

I'm not arguing that carefully considering one's actions and consequences prior to making a decision is not a judicious thing to do. However, when you worry over every possible outcome to the point that you stand frozen and incapable of action, you become incapable of living life to your fullest potential.

I think those of us who tend to over-think things do so because we dislike being wrong more than those with healthy-sized egos. We all pay lip service to the "nobody's perfect" axiom, but somewhere deep inside we want to be considered perfect, or at least as close to perfect as one can get. Why wouldn't we? Our society has very little tolerance for those who err, with one notable exception:

The TV weatherman.

The TV weatherman has a very limited time frame in which he must make a decision about what he thinks the weather is going to do tomorrow, arrange his maps and graphics accordingly, comb his hair, check for oregano between his front teeth, and stand up in front of the camera to say with all confidence that you can leave your umbrella at home in the morning. He doesn't have time to agonize over what will happen if he gets it wrong, and he doesn't really have to, anyway. With all the computer models analyzing more data than a mere human ever could, the weatherman's predictions are usually uncannily accurate.

But - especially in Oklahoma - the weather can change without warning. Even with a million dollars worth of scientific equipment and all his years of meteorological training and experience, sometimes the weatherman is WRONG. When that happens, is it the end of the illustrious meteorologist's career?

No. The next day he gets up in front of the camera, takes some ribbing from his slightly soggy colleagues behind the news desk, smiles, and tries again. Within a couple of days, most people will have forgotten the inaccurate forecast. Why? In spite of his mistake, the weatherman keeps trying. He realizes that he won't always be right, but he keeps moving forward, and he moves forward without agonizing over his past mistakes or his potential future failures.

The best any of us can do is to take what we have learned from our past experiences, follow the advice of those who have gone before us, and make educated guesses about where our actions will lead based on those things. Sometimes we're going to get it wrong, but the times we get it right are what really matter in the end. Like with the weatherman, society will refuse to forget our mistakes only if we let those mistakes define us.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The week the Lord has made

I've had one of those weeks. You know the kind: you're rolling along, enjoying the sun on your face, not a cloud in the sky....

Then out of nowhere comes a bit of bad news. The "bad news" isn't even really that bad; it's just a little cloud over the sun that shone on your life a few minutes earlier, but it's enough to rock you back on your heels. You take a little breath and start to regain your balance...and another piece of bad news comes blowing in from the south, gusting at about 35 miles per hour. Not so bad as Oklahoma wind gusts go, but since you were already off balance this gust knocks you to your knees. It's starting to look a little darker outside your window, but the weather could hold out. After all, your personal forecast didn't call for rain.

You take a deeper breath and get one foot under you, and then the phone rings. Fortunately, it is clipped to your belt, so at least you don't twist an ankle rushing to answer it. But after taking that call the clouds move in so quickly you would swear sunset has come early.

From then on, every little thing you hear - even if it does not directly affect you - further darkens the sky. You start to convince yourself that you don't deserve to walk in the sunshine. If you did, these bad things wouldn't be happening. Surely you have done something wrong to bring this down on yourself.

By the time the rain starts to fall, you don't even bother to drag out your umbrella. It's probably broken, anyway.

I stopped memorizing Bible verses when I grew too old for vacation Bible school. There were no longer prizes for knowing the most verses at the end of the week, so I chose to use my memory for other things. Thank God some brain cells refuse to be reformatted; otherwise, I would have lost this verse from the Psalms:

This is the day which the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Something odd is happening. It's pouring rain, but the sky is inexplicably lighter. This small glimmer of light is just enough for you to realize that no matter how bad things are, they aren't as bad as they could be. And now the deluge is lessening to a heavy shower... a soft rain... a sprinkle... and now the clouds part and you see the most beautiful rainbow against the receding black clouds.

The forecast for this weekend? Mostly sunny with a chance of torrential rain. Sounds beautiful to me.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Putting yourself out there

Since I am "the writer" in the family, I am in charge of my 10-year-old son's English classes this year (my husband and I homeschool our children.) I say I am "the writer" because I haven't written anything other than business letters and e-mails for more than five years. Still, as Mike and I were assessing the curriculum for this school year we both decided that it was time for Ian to move beyond basic grammar and - since I am the parent with the most writing experience - that I should be the one to teach all the joys of composition. This was one of the most exciting prospects I had encountered in quite some time. Not only would I finally have an active role in our homeschool, but I would be teaching writing, something I have always loved to do.

We just completed day 4 of the school year, and I've lost count of the number of times I've made my son cry. I think we're up to seven.

Now, I realize that Ian is only in fifth grade and that I cannot expect a high-school level composition out of him. We're starting out easy, with the basic 3-5 sentence paragraph. He is very capable of grasping the concept and applying it to his writing. But we have a two-fold problem. First of all, Ian doesn't like repetition. Since he is an intelligent child, he has never really had to work at anything in school. He has gotten used to doing his work once and then moving on to the next new and exciting thing. In short, he has not yet learned that "practice makes perfect" applies to school as well as to dance and music, where he encounters repetition three days a week and loves every minute of it. Writing is something that he doesn't like to do, and he hates it even more because he has to work at it. He must get that from his father.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, he fears rejection.

He gets that from me.

Thirteen years ago, I dreamt of a career writing fiction. I have several manuscripts and loads of short stories in varying stages of completion stacked neatly in a box under the bed. I've been told by a variety of teachers and professors throughout the years that I produce publishable work. I even have a 14-year-old list of publications from one professor. He assured me that all I had to do was start submitting my work to the publications, and one of them would publish my stories.

He couldn't tell me which one would do it. And so, I never pursued it. I refused to put myself out there and risk the rejection all writers must face before they finally see their work in print. Instead, I went for the sure thing, ultimately falling into a career that deals with absolutes. Facts that are so concrete they cannot be disputed. In short, no risk of rejection.

I hadn't realized how alike Ian and I are until he handed me his first paragraph. Instead of taking the guidelines I had given him and shaping them into his own original creative work, he had answered the questions asked in the outline, indented the first line, and called it a paragraph. I pointed out all the good things about his work and then told him we would work on it some more. The tears started flowing, and he said, "I don't understand. I followed your guidelines exactly!"

On some level, I'm sure I knew I was limiting myself with my short-sighted and even arrogant attitude toward rejection, but I thought the only person I was limiting was myself. Though this is my first year as an active teacher in our homeschool, it seems as though my son has already learned something from me: the risk of rejection is too great to justify putting yourself out there. I have, in effect, taught Ian to not be creative, to focus on getting the right answer and pleasing everyone except himself.

It's time for a new lesson, and I have my work cut out for me.

This blog serves multiple purposes. First and most importantly, this is my exercise in putting myself out there. I don't know who will end up reading this and what their judgments might be, and that's scary. Secondly, I've been promising someone that I would start sending her some samples of my writing. I started writing a short story a few days ago, but it's slow going. I hope this blog entry will pacify you until I get the story finished, Annie! Third, I need to get back into the practice of writing; this entry has taken forever to write. No wonder my short story isn't finished yet. Finally, my dear husband recently told me it's time to either write or get off the pot. He's been hearing me talk about "someday" for almost 13 years now.

I had a thought this morning that I think summarizes this entry quite well. If you always go after the sure thing, the only thing you can be sure of is an unexceptional result.

Here's hoping for some exceptional results.