Archive for November, 2009

I hate church signs. They almost always express some cheesy albeit esoteric sentiment understood only by those who speak in denominational clichés. My favorite is:  CH _ _ CH   What’s missing? UR! (lol) Yeah, and I’ll probably be missing for quite some time until you can stop embarrassing me in public with your tired wit.

Recently, however, I saw one with true merit. It contained real hope, real optimism. It read Today’s problems are tomorrow’s testimonies. OK, so it’s a little corny as well, but it is true nonetheless.

My past problems are the things which I have overcome and now make up my “victory file.” When I get self-critical, I can remember one of those events and think “I finished that!” or “I did that well!” or “I came through that in one piece!”

Oh yeah, there are failures as well, but I remember them as learning experiences, not as painful losses. I choose to see all of these things as lessons learned, positive outcomes, –victories.

I like victories.


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I sat in the meeting with the old man. He was in his 70’s at the time and was one of those old guys who had been disillusioned in his more idealistic youthful days. He tried hard to be tolerant, and for the most part was, but just underneath you could tell he was a person who was just plain fed up with being surrounded by incompetence.

I recall the words of George Carlin:

Scratch any cynic, and (underneath) you’ll find a disappointed idealist.”

The old man told me that he had a very personal view of “the useless” in life. When he was six years old, his mother asked him what he wanted for his birthday. He told here there was an American Indian costume in the Sears catalog he really liked. The order was placed, and after weeks of waiting the box arrived. He described the delivery of the brown paper-wrapped box and how his eyes nearly popped out of their sockets as he and his mother unwrapped the small brown-clothed costume.

Presently, his father arrived home from work and asked what all the excitement was about. The happy boy and smiling mother showed the tired father the birthday gift. “What?” the father snapped. “This is how you two waste my hard-earned money?” And with that he picked up the costume with one hand, and opened the door to the coal stove with the other. He stuffed the little Indian costume into the fire, beat it down with the poker,  slammed the door, and left the room with a huff and grumble.

Nearly seventy years had passed since that day, but he related the story to me as if the pain was as fresh as that morning’s shaving nick. I have never forgotten the tone of his voice, nor the look on his face as he told me the tale of how that day shattered his feelings so. Incalculable are the opportunities, the happy experiences, the expressions of love and acceptance that both he and his father missed because of the events of that day.

And you better believe that teachers can create the same injuries as well.

Don’t you dare be one of them.

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Music can be an interesting medium. Your goal in a performance is the faithful reproduction, both aural and emotional, of the composer’s internal wishes. Internal, because until you perform it, it’s all in his or her head (or on his or her paper.) Performers and conductors alike, not wishing the performance to be totally cerebral, sometimes use imagery to evoke the feelings and emotions necessary for a truly honest transmission of the writer’s idea. Actors do the same thing.

My daughter, a violinist, was looking over the conductor’s score one evening during a break in rehearsal. There was a point in the piece where the music was to grow very expressive, almost melancholy. Amid all of the other expression marks like crescendos and such, there was, in the margin, a note that said simply: 5:00 on a November evening.

The inscription and its purpose may or may not have escaped my daughter (I don’t recall,) but I do remember how immediate the effect was. I was there. Somewhere on a fall evening, smelling leaves, skies partly cloudy, while overhead birds migrated south, I was swept along with his imagery and could have easily felt it all. It was amazing.

What’s your day? What day did you feel exactly like you wanted to? When was the last day things went your way? Get that experience back firmly in your mind and take advantage of it. If you want to feel like that again, you must feel that way now and as often as possible. Bad feelings attract bad feeling, and the reverse is also true (but you know this, right?) Make an effort to remind yourself that you don’t always feel bad and that things don’t always go wrong. Find those happy days and put the dates on small post-its in places that you will stumble across and smile and feel good again.

Happiness can become habit-forming.

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One of the things I notice about more successful teachers is that they have some sort of reward system that has nothing to do with the subject. For instance, the reward for a correct response in science would be a piece of candy, not an extra point on their grade. I was educated in the day when my reward was making an A on my paper or test. Without trying to sound too “back-in-the-day,” knowledge was its own reward. The excitement of “knowing stuff” kept me at that expectant and receptive level.

Knowledge in this day and age, however, is considered a cheap commodity. Anything a student needs to know they can find on the internet so the concept of memorizing=learning is no longer valid in their minds. The challenge, then, is not simply to state the knowledge and have them memorize it, but to coerce them into paying attention long enough to memorize it. Enter the candy. Recognizing the true value of the new knowledge must come later.

I felt sure there had to be a more emotional/spiritual/intellectual—some other—way to reward students that was nevertheless fun and effective. One day after lunch, I washed and dried my soup spoon and stuck it in my pocket like a pencil. I quickly forgot about it and began class with a spoon sticking up out of my pocket. During the lesson, student responses were quite good and I really wanted to reward them somehow. In an instant, almost as a reflex, I had pulled the spoon out of my pocket and began to flick it at them and say “Blessings! Blessings on you!”  The effect was immediate. “Wow! What’s that?” they asked. “It’s my spoon of blessing!” I responded cheerfully. It became a fixture of the class after that.

Why does it work? It makes them feel good. That’s all. It gets them to that level we try to get to ourselves when we want to stay positive. It imparts no knowledge beyond my recognition that they took the risk of putting their hearts into something and were successful.

And sometimes that’s all it takes.

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Ok, so it’s not what Descartes had in mind, but it’s still a  fun notion to jostle around. Most minds that are drawn to this kind of writing at least entertain the possibility that our thoughts create our reality, and at the very least create who we are within that reality. Centuries before Descartes, Solomon had stated “As a man thinks within (in his heart), so is he.”  In 1902, James Allen published his famous As a Man Thinketh and in one statement revealed the entire premise: 

The soul attracts that which it secretly harbors, that which it loves, and also that which it fears. It reaches the height of its cherished aspirations. It falls to the level of its unchastened desires – and circumstances are the means by which the soul receives its own.

I once read a play by Argentine playwright Osvaldo Dragun called The Man Who Turned Into a Dog.  It is about a man who, after unsuccessful attempts to find a job and in much desperation, takes the job of the night watchman’s recently deceased dog. He sleeps in the doghouse and, by the night watchman’s own instructions, must bark when spoken to. He eventually becomes so accustomed to this new life he even loses his ability to walk upright. He loses everything, his home, his wife. All because he believed he was a dog.

I once heard of a primitive tribe of people living deep in the jungle, far away from Western influences. One tradition which had endured for generations was the curse of the deathbone. If someone did something to shame the village, the shaman would point the deathbone at that person and they would be considered dead to the entire tribe. No one could speak to them, trade with them, eat with them, no interaction at all. They would eventually crawl into their tent and die from neglect. Make no mistake, there was really nothing wrong with them, but everyone agreed and believed that there was.

What you know is simply what you have grown accustomed to. Many times truth is just something that you have told yourself over and over until you believe it. So you are a product of all you have thought in the past. It crept up on you. It has been building up for years. You are not going to change it overnight.

But that’s no reason not to begin…

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We’ve all been there–wanting to throw something, I mean.  Throwing something that breaks or smashes with a good deal of noise is pretty satisfying. Frustration builds, our inability to deal or cope builds, and something has to give. Or does it? A tantrum never fixes anything. It almost never makes you feel better, even though most people will tell you that it does.

One of the administrators at a nearby community college “throws” pottery. I have seen her handiwork at craft fairs and faculty art shows. The lump of clay is thrown onto, and spins on, a platter-like wheel where she shapes it with her hands. As long as she gently guides its shape, she always has a work in progress with potential. If she, in frustration and impatience, grabs at the clay, as if to force it into the desired shape, the once forming shape will simply shear off to the side and become a clump of wet trash. 

Some people are so afraid of small failures that they sabotage their own success by creating epic failures on such a scale that no one would dare blame them openly. Temper fits and lashing out in an episode of giving up are just  psychological attempts to reorganize without blame. British educator Ken Robinson says “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

Maintaining your composure is the key to progress. When the fuse appears to be ignited, just stop and breathe–go in your mind to that peaceful place mentioned in earlier posts–and regroup. A student once told me “That doesn’t fix my problem,” to which I responded “It’s not supposed to fix the problem. It’s supposed to fix you so you can fix the problem.”

Then you can throw…a party!

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No matter how I try to build myself up and improve my thinking habits, I still sometimes forget and resort to my former dark and pessimistic ways. Most irritating of all are those who glibly advise “Just look on the bright side!” That tells me either 1) they’ve never really looked at the true spiritual side of things and are just giving lip service to positive thinking, or 2) they’re on some plane so high above where I am that it really is that simple for them.

One of the most aggravated moments in my journey was when I read a book on happiness by the Dalai Lama. It said that if I wanted to have what I desire then I should desire what I have. O.k.–now I feel tricked! Similarly: If you want to do what you love, just love what you do. I bought a book only to receive useless advice like that!? As my students say “That’s messed up!”

Later, I realized how it works. What you hold in your mind you hold in your hands. If you are all about worry and need, you attract more need and stuff to worry about. If you’re positive (honestly positive) and yielding to the universe, you attract the positive and hopeful. That positive shift in worldview is what moves you into a frame of mind to attract and receive the good in life.

If I truly desire a better life, then I show and talk gratitude for the life I have now. I stop focusing on all the reasons my life is unsatisfactory, and pick out those I can put a positive spin on and think about them. That positive outlook is what allows  me to begin to move from attracting more need and dissatisfaction to attracting supply and content. It doesn’t mean that I’m giving up and settling; it means that I am intentionally becoming a magnet for the good.

I like attracting the good.

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