Answering The Call To Adventure: Part 1. Discovering The Writer Within

A91-179982A few days ago, a close friend passed away rather suddenly. I think the shock of her death gripped many of us in those first hours, where we didn’t know exactly how to react. We searched for meaning, we tried to make sense of the fact that she was here in one moment, and gone in the next.

I posted the following on Facebook to express that yearning for understanding:

When a friend dies, you search. You look for meaning in your own life, seek out understanding in the loss, and rummage through old words shared. In that search, you find yourself laughing and crying, wishing and regretting, loving and hating. Gretchen, I have done all of these things in the past 5 hours, and none of it brings me any closer to finding illumination in a loss as great as yours. There were too many stories untold that we were to share over coffee. You, Gretchen, will always be a merchant of smiles to the masses. We love you, and we will miss you greatly.

The morning after I posted it, a person I did not know on social media commented on it and asked if, many years ago, our paths might have crossed. It turned out they did – for the entire year of third grade, where she was my teacher.

Other elementary school classmates joined in, and within moments words of grief had turned into a celebration of life and gratitude. In Gretchen’s passing, relationships were rekindled, brought together for profound, yet simple purposes: there is an appreciation of life in this moment, and wherever we go, we can discover the beauty of others that swirls around us endlessly. There is no limit in the abundance of love.

holding hands 2In talking with my old teacher and new friend, I found myself returning to two memories from elementary school. The first was when I was in first grade, and I had written a little tribute to Abraham Lincoln for Presidents’ Day. In that brief piece, which I read to the whole school during the afternoon announcements (talk about publishing at a young age), I remember distinctly calling Mary Todd, Lincoln’s wife, his “beloved.” The principal snickered and suppressed a laugh as she held the microphone in front of me. I guess this was the first review I had ever received of my writing.

Jack Delaney1The second memory was of another teacher I had in elementary school. Jack Delaney was my sixth grade language arts teacher. He passed away 11 years later in my first year of teaching in 1988. Jack assigned us weekly writing projects, which I absolutely loved. What Jack did differently, though, was he had us go through this thing called “the writing process,” where we would draft stories, workshop them, edit them, and then share them with a larger audience.

Perhaps that was happening all throughout elementary school and I just don’t remember it. I certainly don’t remember workshopping the line about Abe’s “beloved” wife Mary.

The point is, Jack gave me a chance to breathe as a writer. He gave me the space to explore writing and take risks as that writer. Since that year, I have journaled on a near-daily basis. And in those journals, I have discovered the writer within.

magnetic_poetry1_by_cassandra_tiensivuWe don’t all have those lucky moments where we are given, directly, the chance to discover who we are as artists. In fact, in too many instances (especially today), those opportunities no longer exist. There isn’t time in the classroom, or we are too caught up in other aspects of life to give ourselves the time to discover that writer or artist within.

But inside you, the artist resides. You have to make the time, create the space, provide yourself with the license to write for no other purpose than to discover your voice and see yourself for the artist you have always been.

Maybe you journaled a little when you were younger, and you had to pass it up for reasons that, even today, might make perfect sense. What makes greater sense, though, is reconnecting with the artist inside you, giving that artist the chance to breathe, and allowing that artist to resonate more confidently through you.

In Part 2 of my series “Answering The Call To Adventure,” I will address how you can create a vision – an authentic direction – as that writer.

Our Need To Endure

Yesterday afternoon, I spent a good hour at my local library researching topics that interest me greatly: spirituality, love, peace, and writing. You see, I’ve had some pretty good plans lately for new publications. Most of them center on improving your life through mindfulness and spirituality, using writing as a vehicle to living a more inspired and authentic experience.

By the end of that hour, I was caught between a three-way reaction; I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or just quit altogether.

Every single idea I had — creative ideas, no doubt — had already been done, ad nauseum, by scores of other writers, spiritualists, and self-helpers out there in our shared universe.

When I returned home, I jumped on the internet and did a more global search through Amazon and other booksellers. What I discovered was even more disturbing.

Everything is available. To everyone. Anywhere. Anytime.

I considered my three reactions once more: laugh, cry, or resign. I felt the smile push my already-round cheeks closer to my eyes, and I began to laugh.

The pressure was gone; the anxiety released. I didn’t need to save the world, after all. Scores of life-savers have already taken care of this burdensome job for you, me, and, well — all of us.

Everyone. Everywhere. Anytime.

So what’s the point, then? Why write? Why publish? Why do any of it if it’s already been done?

The books that I mentioned were ones that I never knew existed. I have been doing this for a long time, and I was surprised how many titles were not on my literary radar. They were all legitimate titles, too. None of this Kinko’s-copied, let-me-wrap-a-spiral-binding-around-it kind of publication. Strong authors. Solid publishers. Recent pub dates.

It’s like when you’ve been following a musician for a long time, and you do a quick search and find out he released a new CD 3 years ago. How could this be? In this age of hyper-turbo instant info that goes streaming by your smart-phone-tapping thumbs on a dozen different newsfeeds, you would think that such a release would not get by you.

It did, and so does so much more, which is the whole point.

In a time where instant communication has broken through all geographic, cultural, political, and spiritual barriers, we still find ourselves missing the things that matter the most to us.

This, my friends, is our need to endure: close friends, loved ones, and the members who make up our small, seemingly tight-knit communities, the people and places we frequent the most.

This is our audience, our group, our family. And in this little circle, we need to hear each other’s voices, and often. Beyond us is a cacophony of words, sounds, images, and ideas streaming by us at speeds we can no longer fathom, a flow of information that we can no longer adequately absorb. It is just too much to take in.

But in our own community, we can contribute great things to each other; we can offer and value the sanctity of ideas, regardless of what might exist (ad nauseum) outside of our little village.

We have the need to endure, not for the masses, but for the villagers next door, across the street, or down a little ways along the virtual highway who have aligned with us.

It is for all of you that I write, that I share, that I post, and play, and pray. If it goes beyond the village and is appreciated by others, I am delighted.

But to endure, I write for you first. Always.

An Open Letter To God: Are You There?

are you there god 2

photo: rus vanwestervelt

Dear God:

Are You there? Lately I have been wondering, as a few things have happened around our world that makes me question what’s really going on.

Well, I guess it is a combination of things. I mean, bad stuff happens all the time. No real change there. The change is in us, and the way that we are living our lives.

It’s really beginning to concern me.

I remember when I was in fifth grade, our teacher took us to the library to pick out a book (or two) for the winter break. I was an avid reader by that time, and I was going through the books we had pretty fast. Most of the nonfiction titles were about sharks or ghosts, and I had already devoured them. When it came to fiction, though, I read anything I could find. I walked over to the “New Arrival” shelf, and I found a book that I had never heard of before. It came at a time when I was curious about all things related to God and spirituality. I distinctly remember thinking that this book was there, for me, at that exact time.

I took the book to the librarian to check it out. She read the title, then put the book behind her on a separate shelf. She looked at me with disappointment.

“I’m sorry, dear. You can’t read that book.”

I looked at her incredulously. I had never heard of such a thing.

“What do you mean? I’m in fifth grade! I thought we could check out any book here.”

“You can,” she responded. “But not this one. It’s not appropriate for boys.” She waited for me to leave, but I just stood there. I was an ornery kid.

“Why isn’t it appropriate?” I asked.

All she could do was get angry at my persistence. “It just is! Find another book. Look around you. We have plenty of other titles that you will like.”

I left the librarian, and the copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume, remained on the back shelf and out of my reach.

Later that day, I found out from a girl friend of mine that the book had stuff in it about bras and menstruation, and I immediately decided that I had heard enough and would be happy to find another book before we left for the break, even if that meant rereading about sharks and ghosts.

I admit, though, I was pretty bummed. I thought that the book was about God, that it was there for me, on that shelf, for a reason. And that librarian? She could have recognized why I was interested in the book in the first place. A little redirection to the God shelf would have been pretty appreciated.

I’m wondering how many fifth graders today are wondering about God and looking for answers. I know that, if I am now, at the age of 48, then others must be as well.

So, God, instead of going to my local library (where, by the way, I can now read any book I want without being questioned because it’s all self-serve when it comes to checking books out), I thought I’d come directly to You today.

Are You there, God? It’s me. Rus.

I want to tell You why I am so confused right now. It’s not about these tragedies that are happening around the globe and, terrifyingly enough, right here in the States. Like I said before, I get that (I don’t like it, but I get it).

I am confused because I feel like I know too much. I have read too much about the history of religion, and I question the validity and the motivation of our historians to capture certain religious events. Even more specifically, I question the timing and the similarities between the development of Christianity in relation to other religions.

Or should I not get too hung up on all that stuff? Should the hows and the whys regarding the past not matter to us in the present?

To be honest, God, If it were a purely historical thing, then I don’t even think I would have the need to write you. Wam, Bam, Thank you for the facts, Ma’am. And I’d be on my way.

(Probably not too appropriate here in this context, God. Sorry ’bout that.)

Anyway, this is why I am hung up on this.

photo: rus vanwestervelt

photo: rus vanwestervelt

I feel Your presence. I feel Your love. In all things. I listen to the holiday songs, and I feel You. I see the icons of Christmas, and I don’t see dollar signs or material goods; instead, I feel You.

When I don’t think about all the things that I have read, and when I stop comparing it to how historical or significant events are archived today with so much bias and subjectivity, where seemingly unrelated agendas govern the accuracy of actual events, everything is different.

But I do think about them, and that’s the problem. I’m finding it so hard to follow my feelings when my head is telling me something so different. It’s just so hard to let go of all of that thought stuff and just believe.

Isn’t that how it worked before we had all this stuff written down? Why did it have to get so political about who wrote what, and how?

Earlier today, I asked a few friends about how they knew You existed, and the answers that I got were right in line with us believers having a personal relationship with You that transcends the written word.

Believe me, God. As a writer, it’s very hard to acknowledge that anything should transcend words. But when we write, we are just trying to understand, aren’t we? To put things in a relative context that makes us understand something a little better? In this case, I think it has done just the opposite.

Anyway, here’s what they said.

Mark offered a quote from a band called, Live: “I don’t need no one to tell me about heaven. – I look at my daughter, and I believe. I don’t need no proof when it comes to God and truth, I can see the sunset, and I perceive.”

That’s pretty clear to me, God. You exist in all things, now and forever. Check.

Natalie went deeper with her thoughts, bringing to light in a strong reminder that Nature offers proof that something greater than us exists. “Why does something greater than ourselves (nature) have to be attributed to a deity? I believe there is a higher power than mere humans, but I think nature in all her glory is more than enough to believe in. That way, I can remove judgment and feeling from the equation and just accept what is.”

I couldn’t agree more that the spirit of the higher power existed long before we could write anything about it. It existed, and we as humans reacted to it in the best way we knew how.

Bernadette: “Something inside a belief, a feeling and yes faith. Who or what created all this? Even scientifically speaking, all this energy starts and ends where and why … I know in my darkest hours that my faith and God carried me through it. I don’t believe in “my god” or “your god” over Allah or any other named [deity]. I believe in one God who does not discriminate; he/she loves everyone “as is”; the rules I find to be man made and not God driven at all. The God I know is for all people, all of the time. Even the nonbelievers.”

Again, we are back to the origins being before any written documentation. Beautiful, Bernadette.

Adam: “The quest to understand ourselves as spiritual beings requires belief in a spiritual realm, one which explains the origins of the universe, the world and of us as individuals, and our relationship with the creator. My belief comes from an understanding that we are spiritual beings, created by a spiritual deity. This is the framework through which I see the world. I understand maths and science as manifestations of the creative language of a creative God.

photo: one of my favorite students!

photo: one of my favorite students!

Each culture has its sacred texts, including atheists, to explain origins and meaning. The opening chapters of Genesis do not explain how the world came into being, but explains why it came into being, because God wanted relationship with the creation. And the resultant Bible is the history of that relationship.

How do I know God exists? I know the relationship I have with him and the communion with the saints. I have seen, and heard, many physical miracles of healing; have heard prophecy and words of knowledge, which, like a scientific theory, must be weighed carefully and proved.

The natural world is therefore a reflection of a creative God, a sign to direct me to the one who made it. I see it and know it most when I see people enacting the commandment to ‘love thy neighbour.'”

God, isn’t Adam awesome? (whoa– If there are no coincidences, I’m pretty excited here about mentioning God and Adam in the same sentence, and knowing you both). When he says that the natural world is a reflection of a creative God, it makes perfect sense to me.

I don’t need the words as much as I need to connection with the natural world, the communion with all that transcends us as humans. And yet, as Adam says so eloquently, we can also see You through the kindness of others.

Katie couldn’t agree more with what Adam shares: “Grace, any moment of someone else sticking their neck out for you or lending a hand, especially when we don’t deserve it, to me is a reflection of the original, ultimate example of this kindness. It’s something that even in today’s world, none of us have time for, goes against ‘every man for himself’ survival instincts, and yet its still everywhere.”

Deborah sees you, God, in everything around her: “You need only to look around to know that God does indeed exist. He is there in all of nature, in the falling of the leaves off the trees in autumn, and in the budding of leaves in spring. When you truly look around and realize what nature has to do in order to complete this cycle each and every year, than you know that a higher being is in charge.”

Jim, ever succinct, agrees as well: “The balance of chemicals in your blood stream, the Natural Order of the Universe, the Beauty of Nature – all evidence to me.”

So God, I guess writing does help us get closer to you in some ways. When my friend Lisa wrote, “That’s why it’s called ‘faith’; I just know,” it’s probably one of the simplest, yet most convincing statements I’ve read in a long time. Tonight, writing helped me understand more of what I believe, and why. As well, my friends’ writing put to shame my concerns that you might not be there anymore. Through their words, I feel Your love. And that’s probably the greatest way to receive Your love, through the kindness of others.

Phew! I feel better already!

Thanks for all You do (this is getting awkward).

Yours,

Rus

(p.s.: I think I might write an “Are You There God?” book for boys. All of this might have been a little simpler if that had been on the “New Arrival” shelf all those years ago.)

Neil Gaiman and Making Good Art

neilgaimanMark, a friend and fellow artist and educator, walked in to my classroom yesterday, just before noon. I was talking with Andrew, an alum from ’05 who is a fascinating individual and filmmaker.

“Make good art,” is what Mark said.

He stood there, smiled, and said it again.

“Make good art.”

Andrew and I looked at each other, and Mark asked us if we had seen that Neil Gaiman lecture that’s circulating through social media.

Andrew immediately knew what Mark was talking about, but I somehow remained ignorant.

Make good art?

I listened intently as Mark and Andrew talked about Gaiman and his writing and passion for the arts. I said that I would check it out later, and when I got home last evening and did a little research, it didn’t take long to fall in love with Gaiman’s words and support for reading, writing, and creativity.

So…If you haven’t heard of Neil Gaiman yet, I’ve taken the liberty of capturing some excerpts from a lecture he gave just a few days ago. In this talk, Gaiman explains why using our imaginations, and providing for others to use theirs, is an obligation for all citizens.

Thank you, Mark, for turning me on to Neil Gaiman. It is empowering for us to have the support and the encouragement to “make good art” every day, in all that we do.

On Reading and Writing Fiction

Fiction… builds empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

On Imagination

Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on. This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.

The Obligation of Writers

We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are.

Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading.

And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.

The Obligation of All Individuals

We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.

We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.

Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

These excerpts are from an edited version of Neil Gaiman‘s lecture for the Reading Agency, delivered on Monday October 14 at the Barbican in London, and published at theguardian.com on October 15, 2013.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming?CMP=twt_gu

The Reading Agency’s annual lecture series was initiated in 2012 as a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original, challenging ideas about reading and libraries.

 

 

Five Non-Writing Strategies To Strengthen Your Stories

47-imageCreating stories — regardless of the genre — is all about making it real for your readers. They need to buy in to what you have created. If they don’t, then your credibility is shot, your readers will stop buying your books, and you can forget about establishing any kind of relationship with a reader base. There are too many books out there tempting them for some love and attention. Although readers are naturally creatures of comfort and will want to stick with an author they like, they also have no tolerance for writers who don’t keep it real.

That can be a struggle for us, at times. We sit in front of the blank screen, fingers at the keyboard, waiting for some kind of brilliant inspiration to arrive. At times, it feels no different than dropping a fishing line in a cold pond, waiting for that big bass to take the bait and bring us the high action we’ve been waiting for.

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be such a passive struggle, waiting for that great idea to strike. We just need to activate our creative thinking in non-writing ways to trigger that high-action writing whenever we need it.

Here are five strategies I use to keep my focus in writing stories that are believable, engaging, and accessible to my readers, no matter who they might be.

1. Observe Behaviors.

Being mindful of those around you is a skill you can always work on. Whether you are at a mall, in your car, or at an hour-long business meeting, you can observe the different behaviors exhibited from the people with you.

For writers, though, mere observation is not enough. We begin to ask questions of the people we are observing:

What are they thinking? Is it consistent with how they are behaving?
What might be their next move, action, or reaction?
Is their body language consistent with their words?
What is the source or the origin of their behavior, their expressed emotion, their actions?

These are just a few questions to get you going. The important thing is that you are mindful of the behaviors of others around you, and you consider the reasons for those behaviors. Then, when you sit down to develop a character for one of your stories, you have already stored in your idea bank — at the very least — 10-15 good behavior sketches, complete with motives.

2. Listen To Music.

I spend hours each week listening to new music, trying to find the right artists to fit my creative needs. I have music for daybooking, drafting, revising, editing, and even handling the business side of owning a writing business.

One of the most important playlists I have is for creative inspiration. I scour the library trays filled with CDs for new movie soundtracks — particularly movies that I have never seen. I am looking for music that might tell a story, that might take me on a bit of a journey, thus kickstarting some kind of creative exploration.

The first soundtrack that I used for creative inspiration (many, many years ago) was for the movie Country. Pianist George Winston wrote and played about half of the pieces, which are inspiring enough. But the other tracks were driving, compelling works of music that helped me create stories set in the Civil War and other places. I internalized some of the more powerful songs and used them for personal inspiration and encouragement. Anything is possible when I listen to this music — even to this day, nearly 20 years later.

I have to say, music has brought me to where I am today. I couldn’t create without it!

3. Design Your Setting.

Sometimes, when I am stuck with characters, I turn to my settings and sketch out an idea of where everything is. I do this in meticulous fashion, naming the streets, analyzing the hilly or flat nature of some of the roads, and looking for connections, relationships, history.

It’s all there in the drawing, and it is so inspiring to write a piece where you can actually see where the characters are living — RIGHT NOW.

I do these sketches in my Daybook, on big sheets of paper, and even on paper scrolls that are used as (typically!) easel paper for children. They usually end up on my walls, taped to my computer, or scanned and used as desktop art on my computer.

Design your setting, and give your characters the chance to live freely in their own town!

4. Create Storyboards.

Storyboards are nothing more than little pictures of sequential action in a story. Film directors use these all the time when they are trying to visualize how a scene might look when they shoot it. They consider the different angles and camera shots to enhance the mood or intensity of the scene.

Writers can use storyboards to fulfill the age-old desire to tell stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. What is happening when the story begins? What conflicts arise? How are they resolved?

This creative form of problem solving is also good for meditating on a challenge in your story, or just putting your ideas into a product form that brings to light the visualization of a particular scene.

5. Visualize Your Action.

Visualizing an action or scene in my stories is always great fun. In fact, it is best if I go “on location” to a setting similar to the one in my story and visualize a potential scene. Usually, I don’t have an exact idea of what will happen. I place my characters in the setting, visualize their first movements or words shared, and begin describing exactly how their story unfolds using the surrounding area.

My most successful visualization came when I was working on a short story called, “Alice Flows.” I took a basic storyline with me to a location in western Maryland, sat on a picnic bench with my tape recorder, and began visualizing the two characters interacting in the stream right in front of me. In less than an hour, I felt as if I had lived with them, witnessing intimately the painful process of accepting imminent death in the search for everlasting peace.

If you have a Smart Phone, you don’t even have to buy any extra equipment to do this. All you will need is a camera (still or video) and something to record your voice. Great audio recording apps are available for nearly all smart phones, and most phone cameras today can take incredible photos. All you need to do is find the location, visualize your characters, and whisper “Action” to let them take center stage in your story.

Donald Murray, journalist, educator, and writer who passed away recently, often mentioned in his lectures that writers are always writing, even when they are not pushing the pencil to the paper. I refer often to these five non-writing strategies when working with other writers in LifeStory writing; they will help you as well in strengthening your craft — and your stories — immediately.

Mindfulness in Schools: Empowering Students For Success

Students and teachers who are more mindful in the classroom have reduced anxiety, stress.

Students and teachers who are more mindful in the classroom have reduced anxiety, stress.

As we get ready to head back to school for the new academic year, I am aware of a movement that is sweeping across the country to make students and educators more mindful of their learning and their teaching. It is flying right in the face of high-stakes testing and assessment, but is it really setting the stage for the ultimate battle of Man vs. Machine?

Studies throughout the world are demonstrating that mindful students are taking control of their learning, their emotions, and their general state of wellness, improving their communities and strengthening their independence as a result.

In a paper just published in the British Journal of Psychiatry (20 June 2013), “Effectiveness of the Mindfulness in Schools Programme: Non-Randomised Controlled Feasibility Study,” researchers concluded that “the degree to which students … practiced the mindfulness skills was associated with better well-being and less stress.”

Programs like Mindfulness in Schools are changing the culture of our classrooms and are empowering our students to be mindful learners, aware of their own learning styles and practices.

What is School Mindfulness?

Being mindful in school (a strategy for both teachers and students) is simple to practice, yet it is often neglected because of the pressures of assessment, placement, and evaluation. Because of the overwhelming pressure placed on schools to produce positive and high-ranking data, it is easy to lose the focus on the individuals comprising the data.

The principles of being mindful are easy to learn and to put into practice, even before the first day of school arrives. The definition of awareness, as given in “The Awareness Principle” by Peter Wilberg, can be easily applied to any education setting. As you read this summary of Wilberg’s findings, be mindful of the classroom setting you are familiar with and how mindfulness can empower teachers and students.

We have the power to be aware of our thoughts and feelings, of the way we express them, of the way they affect our bodies and our behavior. We have the power to be mindful of the way they lead us to act and react to others, of the way they color our view of the world, and of the way they affect our sense of ourselves. Awareness of our feelings and thoughts is not itself a feeling or thought, nor is it by itself anything bodily or mental; like space, it embraces and transcends each and every thing we are aware of. It creates space for clearer thoughts to arise, along with a new sense of ourselves.

When teachers and students enhance their self-awareness in the classroom, they make a decision to bring greater focus and meaning to their work, thus becoming more accountable for the purpose and intent of their actions.

Can Mindfulness and High-Stakes Testing Co-Exist?

It is easy to place mindfulness and high-stakes testing as polar opposites, making it seem like there is some difficult choice to make: either be mindful and aware of your experience in the classroom, or succumb to the machination of uniformity in a curriculum that continues to limit individuality.

I argue that practicing mindfulness in the classroom is a win-win scenario, both for you and for the school system. As more studies continue to demonstrate a correlation between mindfulness and wellness, students and teachers with reduced anxiety and greater focus can engage in the rigorous curricular activities while maintaining a “What’s In It For Me” (WIIFM) attitude.

At the very least, this awareness makes classroom content more relevant and applicable to individuals, giving greater reason for them to be engaged more meaningfully.

Over time, practicing mindfulness in the classroom will lead to an application of the WIIFM experiences to long-term goals that align with authentic career choices. Individuals will be devoting their time in their teens and well into adulthood engaged in meaningful work and charitable acts.

It seems like a no-brainer to students, teachers, and administrators: mindfulness is an empowering strategy for success, and integrating opportunities for students to be aware of their learning in the classroom makes perfect sense for now and our future, where our communities are filled with individuals who are actually living an inspired life, aligned with who they really are.

 

Mindfulness in the Heart of Baltimore

 

Mid-day sunshine brings Baltimore to life.

Mid-day sunshine brings Baltimore to life.

I don’t know if you have ever read or seen Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” but yesterday, walking mindfully through Baltimore on my way to a photo shoot for my new gig writing for our local paper, I had one of those “occurrences” in everything that I saw, heard, and felt.

If you aren’t familiar with Bierce’s short story, “Occurrence” is about a man who is hanged for treason during the Civil War. In the process of being hanged, though, the noose breaks, and he embarks on an all-senses-heightened run back home to his wife. (I have included the video at the end of this post. Really– it’s an Oscar-winning classic short film by filmmaker Robert Enrico).

No. I didn’t feel like I was being hanged. It was the other part — the all-senses-heightened experience that I was mindful of: brilliant colors brought to life by a descending sun, the intricate textures and architecture in the buildings, and the people– the people! I was blown away by the surprise on some people’s faces when I looked into their eyes and smiled as we passed by. There was life there, a sudden belief that they were acknowledged, even appreciated without judgment. The energy we shared in the simple exchange of smiles was exhilarating.

It was all available to me simply by walking mindfully as I went from the Light Rail train to the Baltimore Sun building on N. Calvert Street.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is all about awareness and staying in the present, with open appreciation and gratitude. I could have occupied my walk with plenty of worries and fears about meeting the individuals I am now working with at the paper. As well, I could have stressed the entire way about getting back in time to pick up my daughter before 5 p.m.

What if the photographer has a line of people waiting for head shots?
What if my editor is in a meeting and I have to wait?
What if the trains are running late?
What if…?

Nope. Waste of energy. Every single one of those thoughts. At that precise moment when I stepped off my train and started walking toward the Sun building, not one of those what-ifs was in my control. If I kept my focus on there, an hour in the future, I would have passed up the mindful walk that centered me and enriched my experience in Baltimore.

Walking mindfully is having an awareness of your surroundings  It is simpler than you might think.

Yesterday, in my walk through Baltimore, my mindfulness allowed me to experience, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city, “perfect sweetness [in] the independence of solitude,” as Emerson wrote in his essay, “Self Reliance.”

Mindfulness Is Available to All of Us

Creativity and beauty can be found throughout Baltimore; all we need to do is be mindful to see it!

Creativity and beauty can be found throughout Baltimore; all we need to do is be mindful to see it!

Mindfulness has been around for centuries, and it continues to be practiced everywhere — in the workplace and in the schools. According to Cara Moulds, an energy-shifting, confidence-building possibilitarian, it is anything but a fad.

If you simply look at the many examples of how mindfulness is already being incorporated into business and education, you can see that this is much more than a trend. And also, consider the scientific research being released to show the benefits both in employee productivity and student test scores, not to mention well-being and compassion toward others.

Still, many people align being mindful with some deep religious sect or cult. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a very simple tool to help us live more creatively and fully, every day of our lives.

Meghan Vivo does a wonderful job debunking the myths of mindfulness in her article, “8 Misconceptions About Mindfulness.”

Mindfulness is a quality and a tool – a very powerful one. It won’t, by itself, bring eternal bliss or answer all of life’s questions, but it can bring a sense of connectedness and peace to the practitioner, which can translate into fewer self-defeating behaviors. . . . It also helps cultivate other qualities, such as wisdom and compassion, that lead ultimately to greater satisfaction, even in difficult circumstances.

We don’t have to join some kind of group or live our lives any differently; the difference is that we need to understand that the powers of mindfulness are within us, right now. Once we understand that, everything suddenly becomes possible in our lives, even when taking a simple walk in Baltimore City.

Here’s the short film, “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” by Robert Enrico:

 


About Rus VanWestervelt: I am a pretty mindful guy who teaches writing, creativity, and — yes — even mindfulness. My eCourses have received great praise over the years, and I would love to work with you. Shoot me an email (rusvw13@gmail.com) or find me on Twitter (@rusvw) or Facebook (facebook.com/RusVanWesterveltWriter). My fall classes will begin mid-August. I am looking forward to working with you!

On Being Creative: Living A Mindful and Inspired Life

001creativity

I have been in this cafe for a little over an hour, writing in my Daybook to the ambient sounds of chatter, the clanging of dishes, all blended with the meditative, hollow sounds of Deuter playing his bamboo flute. On these pages, I have written about singular moments I experienced decades ago along the marshy lands lining the Patuxent River, the beautiful flow of my life in this present here in Baltimore, and the possibilities that await elsewhere in this world with an open heart.

It was not hard to get here. In fact, I’m not really in a cafe at all. Try a dining room table in my suburban home next to my kids who are experimenting with crayons, sketch pencils, and a lot of funny faces.

But I feel like I am in a cafe, thanks to the assistance of coffitivity.com with the background noise. Because of their creative and innovative thinking, I am able (as are you) to find a fertile environment for creativity anywhere and at anytime.

(I have to admit, I discovered Coffitivity in Anahad O’Connor’s article in the New York Times (published 6/21/13), How The Hum of a Coffee Shop Can Boost Creativity. O’Connor cites a fantastic study published in the Journal of Consumer Research on the correlation between ambient noise and enhanced creativity. The findings by Mehta, Zhu, and Cheema — the authors of the study,  through a series of five experiments, showed how and why moderate ambient background noise can enhance creativity, primarily by opening up the mind to think more abstractly.)

Being creative: it doesn’t take planning, or great orchestration, or even cooperation from others.

All it really takes is a decision, on your behalf, to embrace the powers of creativity within you and live a mindful and inspired life.

Too busy? Too old? Not your style?

Nope. Sorry — Not buying it. Everybody’s busy doing the work that everybody else expects, we all think we are older than we really are, and too many of us are trying to discard the things we have been told are foolish, childish, and a downright waste of our time.

I’m not buying any of it, and you shouldn’t either.

We have been fed, far too long, the belief that “being creative” is something extreme artists do. They are poor, they are messy, and they are crazy, wild madmen and madwomen set out to do outrageous things.

Those creative types, always cutting off their ears and stuff. Really! Get over it already and find a real job like everybody else!

Yes. Creativity has gotten a pretty bad rap over the last century or so. It’s not your fault, though, and it’s not even your parents’ fault; it goes a little deeper than that. But we don’t need to be concerned about the past so much. We need to be concerned about what is happening to creativity right now to you, me, and even our children in our heavily funded school systems. (if you haven’t stumbled over this TedTalk gem by Sir Ken Robinson, go grab a fresh cup of coffee and push play; you won’t be disappointed.)

The Suppression of Creativity

Julia Cameron, author of the best-selling book and program, The Artist’s Way, has spent her entire career fighting for the right of all individuals, young and old, to reclaim their creative souls and live a more mindful, inspired life. In her follow-up to Artist’s Way, Vein of Gold, she argues that the first step is to awaken from the ho-hum expectations passed down to us. “Most of us are not raised to actively encounter our destiny. We may not know we have one. As children, we are seldom told we have a place in life that is uniquely ours alone. Instead, we are encouraged to believe that our life should somehow fulfill the expectations of others, that we will (or should) find our satisfactions as they have found theirs.”

How sad! But it makes sense, doesn’t it? Somewhere in our childhood, right around the age of 8 or 9, our lives changed. The time had arrived to put away the colored pencils and get “serious” about life.

Cameron continues: “Rather than being taught to ask ourselves who we are, we are schooled to ask others. We are, in effect, trained to listen to others’ versions of ourselves. We are brought up in our life as told to us by someone else! When we survey our lives, seeking to fulfill our creativity, we often see we had a dream that went glimmering because we believed, and those around us believed, that the dream was beyond our reach. Many of us would have been, or at least might have been, done, tried something, if…If we had known who we really were. But how were we to know?”

Ugh. It makes me sick every time I think about how we suppress the very key to innovative thinking and inspired living. Our greatest accomplishments in the history of our world have come about from being creative! And yet, we treat creativity like some banished, bad kid who has spent a little too much time being naughty, wasting everyone’s time with silly games and stupid thoughts.

And, now that we are older, we seem to think that it is just too late to do anything about it.

But I have a family, a job, other responsibilities now…

Yes. Most of us do. But the truth is this (and here’s where we can boldly begin to discard the excuses and the worries): We can use these constraints to our advantage, once we accept creativity back into our lives.

Turning Constraints into Creative Opportunities

Daniel Levitin, speaking on “Creativity in Music: Constraints and Innovation” at Stanford University’s Behavioral Science Summit earlier this month, argued that much of our creative explorations that have led to masterpieces are a result of evolution, rather than just revolution.

Levitin defines creativity in the following way: “Works of art that we judge to be the most creative involve the artists working under constraints to produce something novel, or something that pushes the edges of these assumed constraints.”

In other words, because of these constraints, our creativity can manifest into great things, for ourselves, for our communities, or for the world.

Well, it’s not too late. I am here to tell you: You are a creative individual, and you have the right and the duty to live a mindful and inspired life right now. Maybe it’s time to take an online creative writing course, or at the very least, head to your local bookstore and pick up a new journal and begin creating. What matters most, right now, is that you realize there’s a creative YOU waiting to be rediscovered, right now, and you don’t have to do anything extreme to bring creativity back into your life.

Why wait any longer? A creative, mindful, and inspired life is waiting within you, ready to be ignited.

Coming up later in the week: I want to talk more about establishing the Daybook essentials and how this single creativity journal serves as the key to fostering a creative routine in your life.

 

 

Follow Your Passion

Shift Your Energy, And Everything Changes.

We all carry within us an enormous, limitless supply of energy and creativity. It has to come out of us in some form, and we make the decision time and time again how we expend it.

Some of us make these decisions consciously; others have thrown themselves at the mercy of their environment unconsciously and allow it to be used or released or wasted as others see fit.

I’ve tried to always be conscious of it, but I often get so caught up in what I’m doing, that I don’t realize that I’m wasting my energy as plainly as the person who never realizes how their creativity or energy is being used.

You know what I mean, right?

We’ve all been there. Think about a time when you felt so strongly about a job, a relationship, a program. You put an incredible amount of energy into it because you wanted that end goal so desperately: to be wealthy, to be loved, to be smart.

How’d that work out for you?

The energy and creativity were probably off the charts, but the end result? Not so much.

That’s what I’ve been doing for so many years, creating and using energy for projects that I was absolutely sure were going to bring me great wealth and freedom. I convinced myself that “do the work” meant “sell your soul” to achieve greatness. Even though I kept feeling like I was giving my projects CPR just to keep them barely alive, I thought that this is what it took to “make it.”

I was wrong. Completely wrong.

When you follow your passion first, and simply choose to live your life in a way that provides solace and opportunity for others, you and your projects are never on life support. They blossom and thrive in ways you could have never imagined. Your creativity and energy become the soil, the rain, and the sun for that passion to grow abundantly — for your community and for you.

Realizing this has made all the difference in everything I write, I create, I do. I am no longer desperately looking for answers to solve my problems; I am looking for opportunities to share my passion for creativity and living fully with others.

I trust the rest will take care of itself when I follow my passion first. I cannot worry about anything else. With motivations that are pure and genuine, I know that goodness will prevail.

A Leap Of Faith

I know this doesn’t seem like an easy thing to do. We are so programmed to chase those goals, meet those standards, define our lives by success. Being encouraged to follow your passion seems so antithetical to everything we’ve been taught.

The beautiful thing is that you don’t have to quit anything. All you need to do is shift your energy and your creativity, ever so subtly, to the things you are most passionate about. Everything else will take care of itself.

Shifting that energy might be in the way you greet others, in the way you listen a little more acutely, or in the way you are patient during challenging times (yes! we use energy in practicing patience!).

Exercising your creativity might be in how you express your thoughts and ideas to yourself and to others, in taking creative dates or explorations, or going beyond your comfort zone with various art forms — watercolors, photography, sculpture.

There is no big plan or program. You don’t have to declare anything in social media. It’s just about you, shifting your energy, and following your passion.

And once you do, you’ll see everything in a light so vibrant, so pure, you will begin to realize the limitless energy and creativity within, always available to the genuine and passionate YOU!

 

A Tale of Two Interviews: Defining Moments for Jude and EL as Piper’s Reach Nears Its End

IMG_1744Earlier today, I had the time to catch up on the recent letters posted at Postmarked: Piper’s Reach. Many things struck me as I found myself once again lost in the world of EL and Jude, but one thing remained with me throughout the day:

The Interviews.

For Jude, the interview is with Rebecca (Jude’s letter dated Sunday 31 March, 2013). In his first face-to-face with his wife since the separation, Jude is given the opportunity to “come clean” and offer a full apology and new promise to Rebecca.

He is not shy in making the offer:

“I am truly sorry for lying to you. For cheating on you. For betraying you. For exposing you to shame and ridicule. For abandoning you and the children.”

Rebecca leaves the door open for this to happen. She responds: “What do you want from me?”

He responds immediately: “Forgiveness. Trust. A chance to repair the damage.”

And then writes to EL: “Rebecca spelled out in no uncertain terms that I was not to see you again, to have no contact with you.”

Yet, he chooses to come to EL anyway. Regardless of whatever reason it might be, whether it is justified by readers or by Jude himself, he failed the interview. He had returned to Rebecca to ask for her forgiveness, her trust, a chance to repair the damage. He was given it, and immediately dismissed it with his decision to see EL.

It makes no difference what parameters he might set for EL (however ridiculous they might be to ban her from entering Piper’s Reach); in fact, just remove anything and everything about EL out of this picture for this one thought: if you isolate his words and his actions with Rebecca – and then his decisions made directly afterward, you see the very definition of Jude Smith.

When Hamlet shouts at Polonius: “Words, words, WORDS!” we begin to see and understand a character who is more caught up with the thought of the actions, and little more. All the ponderings, apologies, and analyses mean nothing when compared with actions. Jude suffers from the same illness, where words mean little in the shadow of his actions, including his blatant disregard for Rebecca.

It is not Jude’s tragic flaw that he has an inability to act; we have seen him conduct many actions that are followed by profound apologies and beggings for forgiveness. It is Jude’s tragic flaw that he knows nothing of standing by his decisions and following through with his actions. The follow-up words get in the way of the actions meaning anything of authenticity and significance.

In the case of Rebecca, he has asked for forgiveness. He has been given the parameters to be allowed back into her life. He breaks them immediately and lies to everyone about the motive of traveling to Sydney.

In the case of EL, he offers his help and provides her with similar parameters (of the concrete nature to stay out of Piper’s Reach). But when he is watching her during her interview, he almost admonishes her with his own wishes that she would have told him more: “Even just a hint of what you were going through so I could have been there for you like I was so many years ago.”

More words, words, words from a man who is driven only by his need to perpetuate endlessly the cycle of help, act, and hurt, which leads to guilt, apology, and absolution (We need look no further than Jude’s words to EL in his Wednesday, 3 April, 2013 letter: “…to again be there for you like I promised; to give these letters and make restitution and gain absolution”).

He has the chance to be there for her the very next day at the second interview. Yet, his inability to see opportunity or follow through with his own words or intent, is strikingly apparent in his closing words: “I am not sure what I’ll do tomorrow. I want to be there for the other interview, to again be there for you like I promised….”

Words. promises… Words. promises… Words. promises. . .

EL’s interview, on the other hand (as it is described by Jude), seems authentic, freeing, where he compares her to Christ’s crucifixion and then resurrection, or the rising phoenix from the ashes. We—the readers—are given every reason to believe that the absolution from this interview is a life-changer.

EL does not seek absolution; she does not ask for it; she does not even beg for it. She receives it despite the attacks she endures. With the lights and the cameras rolling, she is “naked” to the world, revealing and releasing layer after layer, as Jude puts it.

Maybe that is clearly the difference between EL and Jude. As EL sheds her layers and seeks genuine rebirth and resolution, Jude believes he can have the same thing by piling on the layers of more words, more apologies, and more promises.

We are near the end of this incredible story, and I still cannot fathom the details of its eventual conclusion. It does not matter. What Adam Byatt and Jodi Cleghorn have done for readers around the globe is truly astounding. This journey of debate, of discussion, of prediction and speculation is worth any turn of events yet to come.

And, I daresay, after we have all read those final words of Postmarked: Piper’s Reach, the discussion among us all will continue for many months to come.