13 May 2017

Back in June

Vacation--it's really nice to have one now and then. And since I'm going to be on vacation for the next couple of weeks, and then out of the country for some language refresher work (important since I teach languages!), I think it's time to set aside this blog until I get back. So I'll start up again in mid-June, when I'm back and I have a bit more time. I haven't posted nearly as much recently because of a huge work load, but come June I'll have more time to put into new posts. So I wish you well until then, and I refer you to the very large number of posts in the archives for the next four or five weeks. Take care!

09 May 2017

Time Away

Sometimes, no matter how much you want to do something, it's important to put it aside for a while and focus on other things that are more pressing, more immediate.  At the end of semesters, for example, it's important for me to focus on my classes and my students, because we're coming to the end of our time together and I need to make sure that we accomplish all that we need to get done and that the grades are fair and accurate. Something like this blog, which I really enjoy doing but which isn't nearly as pressing as my classes, must get put on a back burner while I focus on the things that are truly pressing.

Life does that to us, and it's up to us to make the decisions that will allow us to do something really well rather than spreading ourselves too thin to do any one particular thing extremely well. We like to claim that we're "good at multitasking," though, and that we're able to juggle a lot of things at once and do them all successfully. I know from experience, though, that when I do that, the quality of all the things suffers--I may like to think that I've done everything just as well as I normally would, but I know that's not the case at all. In order to be able to do other things, I've cut corners on something else. In order to spend the time necessary to write blog entries, I would spend less time on class preparation, grading, or meeting with students. It's just the way life is--we have a limited amount of time available to us, and we need to make decisions that allow us to use it well.

There are certain jobs, of course, that don't necessarily have to be done extremely well. Painting a wall in a storage room usually doesn't require the time or care that the wall in the living room demands. But I know that my students take priority over other things, partly because teaching students is how I make my living and partly because students who have taken my class have trusted me to teach them what they need to know in their futures.

It does feel good to get back to things like this when semesters end, but it's important that when the time comes to decide on my priorities, I choose the things that are the most important for more people, and that I be able to put aside for a time those things that are not nearly as pressing, and that can afford to be left alone for a while. After all, the choices we make determine our success or failure in whatever we do, and I want to try to do my best in the areas that need my time and energy more than others.

But of course, I am glad to be able to return!

30 March 2017

Small Steps

One of the most important lessons of my lifetime is one that I'm very thankful that I've learned well--that of taking small steps, and even more importantly, being satisfied with those small steps.  I've always tended to want things done now, or even five minutes ago, but life has been very good at teaching me that not only is that not always possible, but it's usually not even desirable.

I've always been the kind of person who would take a painting class and want to paint a masterpiece on my first outing.  I'd start to build a bookcase and want it all done in an hour, and I'd want it to be perfect.  I'd start a school program and want my degree in a matter of months, but I'd be told that it would take years.

Don't worry--I'm not the kind of person who would rant and rail about things being "too slow"--all of my discontent was inside of me, more in the way I felt than the way I acted.  One of the problems that contributed to this bigger problem is the fact that I'm usually pretty good at whatever I do--I learn very quickly, and I'm almost always able to work at an accelerated pace, so slowness frustrates me a lot.  But I do realize that not everyone learns at the same pace; many people need things to go more slowly, so it's important that I be patient and understand that things won't always go at my pace.

I notice that my students tend to have a hard time with this.  They also want things done now, and to move on to the next thing.  I often have them write just one paragraph of a paper at a time, and they're usually pretty astonished to see how well developed their finished essay is because they gave attention to the individual parts instead of trying to write an entire essay at one sitting.

I've seen this ability reflected in the work that goes with writing novels--inside, I often feel impatient when the novel isn't done as soon as I start chapter one, but the process is obviously much more involved than that.  You don't write novels as a whole or even chapter by chapter--you write them sentence by sentence, and often word by word.

Cooking is another activity that allows one to focus on the process instead of an immediate finished product.  Even something as simple as making a salad forces one to work first with the lettuce, then with the tomatoes, then with the cucumbers. . . .  It can't be done immediately.  Unfortunately, though, we live in the age of meals in a box, and people don't have to learn the process any more--they just have to boil some water or throw things into the microwave.

Is it any wonder, then, that we have a hard time honoring the processes of life, and allowing ourselves to flow with them at the speed they take naturally?  We're so used to getting everything done at once that we don't have time to take the small steps and actually enjoy them for what they are--pieces in a larger process that leads to a finished product in which we can take pride.

The ability to be satisfied with small steps is a reflection of my growth in letting go of control of situations over which I have no control, especially as far as time is concerned.  I don't see doing something slowly as a reflection on me any longer, and I don't see not being finished as a negative, no matter how someone else may look at it.  I can't tell you how many times people have asked "You're not finished yet?" when I've been taking my time through a process so that the finished product is as good as I know it can be.  If I can take an extra day or two on something and know that its quality will be immensely greater, then I will take the extra time; I haven't always been this way.

There's something very liberating about finishing a chapter and not thinking, "Only twenty more to go!"  It's a good feeling to recognize the accomplishment of having written the chapter and knowing that it was an important task that soon will contribute to a book as a whole

Life is a process, and we must honor it.  All of our years don't come at once, so we must learn and grow as the lessons come to us, and we must let them change us at their pace, and not try to force things to happen.  If we can do this, we'll find the peace that the gardener feels knowing that the vegetables won't be ready for harvest for months, and the peace that the rancher or farmer feels when new calves are born and they must grow and develop before they're a productive part of the ranch or farm.  It's the peace that comes from doing what we can do when we can do it, and leaving the rest for the right time to do the rest.

25 March 2017

No recognition needed

Quite a while ago, I took the first steps that I needed to take in order to let go of the need for recognition.  I have no idea what those steps were, nor do I remember what I did to take them, but I know that there came a point in my life at which I was much less interested in getting recognition than I was in getting done whatever job needed to be done.  I no longer needed the validation of recognition nearly as much as I had needed it before.

Don't get me wrong--I still like and appreciate recognition, especially when I've done a good job on something important.  But I've found that there's a great difference between needing recognition and appreciating it, and most of that difference has to do with my expectations.

When I do a good job, I know it--and that should be enough.  The satisfaction that comes from doing a job well should make me feel good enough about myself and my work that I don't need any outside praise to make me feel better.  When I don't keep this thought in mind, though, or when I'm in one of my needier moods, I sometimes feel the need (though it's more a desire than a need, of course) for someone else's praise in order to validate my work.

What happens then?  Well, when I show my work to someone else, I all of a sudden have expectations concerning the way I think they should act--I expect them to praise the work, and either directly or indirectly praise me for having done it.  Once I have expectations like this, I'm opening myself up to being very disappointed when they don't respond as I expect them to.

I also find that not expecting the "glory" has another positive effect--it allows other people to take praise and benefit from what's been done without me having to take a share of it.  Now I'm not one who believes that praise should be handed out freely for even mediocre work, nor am I one who believes that one person should get credit for the work of several, but there's something very gratifying in allowing others to stand in the spotlight when they've done a good job.

As teachers, we get pretty used to this--when students excel or graduate, it's a great moment for them, and it's great to see them receive the praise that they deserve.  As teachers, though, it would be very easy for us to say "Well just a minute--this student might have just graduated, but who do you think taught him?  What about the work that we've put in to helping him develop the skills and knowledge that were necessary for him to get this far?"  And for all practical purposes, that's a valid point.

On the job, there are many managers who do such a good job of mentoring and training the people they supervise that those people accomplish great things at work.  Very often, the manager him- or herself gets little to no credit for the success of others, though.  The problem on the workplace, though, is that too many managers see their main responsibility as getting the job done, and they don't make the effort to help the workers to grow and learn.

Parents spend a couple of decades helping their children to grow and develop, and their job doesn't end when their children leave home.  It's always heartwarming and gratifying, though, to see young people thank their parents for their love and support when those young people are recognized for their achievements in life.  Parents, too, could make the argument that without them and their influence, their children wouldn't be able to achieve the things they've accomplished.

But what purpose would it serve to make the point?  Really, it would serve no purpose at all except to diminish the achievement of the young person--and that's why we almost never hear this point being made.  A parent's responsibility is to help the young person to grow and develop.  The job of a manager or supervisor is to help the people who work for them to grow and develop (as well as to get the job done).  Our job as teachers is to empower students to grow and develop.  We're simply doing our job if we accomplish this.

I remind myself constantly that I don't need recognition to validate myself as a person, but even with the constant reminders I still find myself wanting to hear the praise of others for my work.  There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but my hope is that I can continue to wean myself from this need as time goes on so that my personal happiness and satisfaction no longer rest ever again on the actions or responses of other people.  All I can do is keep trying, and try I shall.

06 March 2017


I go through an annual bout with allergies--three or four weeks in the spring when pollen causes my sinuses and nasal passages to do all sorts of crazy things, mostly having to do with sneezing and creating immense quantities of fluids with which I can fill tissue after tissue.  These are the days when I almost never get a full night's sleep, for I wake up two or three times either sneezing or so congested that I almost can't breathe.  The medicine that worked so well the first year now works fairly well, as I think I've been building up an immunity to it--I still wake up very often and end up walking around like a zombie the next day.

When all is said and done, though, I'm pretty grateful that this is the extent of my poor health on an annual basis--when I think of all that I could be going through with a different health problem, my problems are very minor in comparison, and I have to be thankful to be afflicted with simply a reaction to pollen.

I've started to look at this affliction a bit differently, though, and I'm not sure why.  I've been aware for years that my allergies are caused by my body trying to fend off an "intruder" that's completely harmless:  pollen.  My body is sneezing and watering and draining and itching because it wants to get rid of something that it doesn't need to get rid of.  What a waste of energy and fluids that is!

I've tried to imagine what it would be like to get my body not to fight off the pollen--to just let it be when it enters my system.  All of the symptoms then, in theory, would disappear, and I would no longer have allergic reactions.  But that's only if I can accomplish allowing my body to accept the "intruder" and not try to fight it off.  The allergy medications merely stop the call to battle by blocking the histamines, from my understanding--it's suppressing a reaction that's trying to happen, causing another battle inside of me, and it does get me pretty tired.

I've realized that this has been a trait of mine that goes far beyond pollen and allergies--I've always tried to push away anything that appears to be a threat, trying to keep myself "safe."  It seems to be a rather normal human tendency, but I go a bit further because of some other things that have gone on in my life, and I know for a fact that I've rejected some things and people in my life that could have helped me to grow, to mature, and to learn--all because my first perception was that these things posed a threat to me.

My allergies mirror a very important aspect of who I've been for many years, and I'm pretty convinced that the only way I can get rid of my allergies is to get rid of this harmful aspect of myself.  It's okay to want to protect myself, but I also reject the good and the harmless when I try too hard.  That's what my body's doing--it's trying too hard to protect itself, and making me miserable because it's trying to reject some simple pollen.

These days, whenever the symptoms start up, I try to tell myself to relax and to let the pollen alone--there's no need to reject it.  I'm trying hard to extend that approach to other things in life, also, that I perceive as a threat.  So far, I don't see any big changes, but I'm pretty sure that the more at peace I get with the perceived threats in my life, the more at peace my allergies will be.  Even if I don't succeed in lessening the severity of my allergies, at least I'll be working at something very important--acceptance of life and the different aspects of life.

Most of the things we face in life are as harmless as pollen, but we spend a lot of effort and go through a lot of agony trying to keep them away, anyway.  I've realized by looking at my allergies in a new way that I want to be more open and more accepting, and that I don't want to spend so much time rejecting things in a futile effort to keep myself safe from something that I don't even need protection from.

25 February 2017

Changing Time

Have you ever noticed how much more quickly time goes by as we get older?  With each year that I spend on this planet, time flies by much more quickly, and what used to take forever to get here (how long does Christmas take to come when we're six?) now flies in on a supersonic jet and leaves just as quickly.  Vacations?  They used to last forever, but now they're over almost before they start.

In the summer when we're kids, it seems that Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas are far away in the future.  I know as an adult, though, that not only will they be here before I know it, but they'll also be over with almost before I realize that they're here.  It's almost frightening to think of just how quickly our days pass.  Is this what Einstein meant with his theory of relativity?  That time, for example, is relative when considered by different people at different ages?  In different situations?  It seems to make sense.

But what does this mean to us?  So what?  Does that make a difference in our lives?

I say "absolutely."  If our lives seem to be passing more quickly as we grow older, then it's very important that we be aware of the faster time and try to make more of it while it's passing.  If I know that this coming week is going to go by more quickly than weeks used to, then I need to plan into the week things like long walks and bike rides, rather than just assuming they're going to happen.  I need to plan on finding time to talk to friends and read books and relax, because it probably will be very easy for me to get caught up in the many tasks that face us each day of our lives and let the days go by while I'm moving from task to task.

I also need to let go of things more quickly.  I need to let go of the anger that I feel for the person who did something bad or rude to me or someone I care for.  I need to let go of the worries about work or money or the car.  I need to let go of trying to make things happen in the way that I want them to happen, and let go of my often-unrealistic expectations of others and their behaviors.  If I don't let go of these things, then my all-too-short days will be less enjoyable and more stressful, and that can't be good for me.

If we move to a new city or country, one of the first things that we do is learn about the laws of the place so that we don't find ourselves breaking those laws.  We do this out of respect for the place and the people who live there, and we do it quite naturally.

When we move to new places or into new situations in our lives, though, we tend not to do the same thing--we just assume that things are the same.  My life right now, for example, is not the same as it was in high school, and it's not the same as it was when I was younger and doing work that wasn't career-oriented.  One of those differences is the speed at which I pass through time, and the significantly less free time that I have.  If I want to get the most out of this life I have, I need to recognize that rules and laws change as I make my way through life, and that days aren't what they used to be, and weeks aren't what they used to be.  They don't last as long, and I spend much more time in each focused on things that have to be done rather than on things that I want or need to do.

Are your days and weeks shorter, too?  If they are, that probably means that you just need to plan in a few more of the things that we used to do as a matter of course, the fun things that kept us young and alive.  If we don't do this, what will we do tomorrow, when we find out that twenty years have passed us by?  Personally, I want to look back on those twenty years and see a time that was balanced between fun and obligations, recreation and work.  It's completely my choice, but unless I'm fully aware of the changing laws, I'm not able to make that choice.

Don’t be fooled by the calendar.  There are only as many days in the
year as you make use of.  One person gets only a week’s value out of
a year while another person gets a full year’s value out of a week.

Charles Richards

12 January 2017

Another Way to Climb a Mountain

My wife and I love to hike, and we once went with some friends to climb a mountain not far from our home.  It was a cloudy, rainy day, and there wasn't a whole lot to see as far as views were concerned, but we were enjoying ourselves anyway.  We had no way of knowing on our way up, though, that we were going to be treated to a very special experience when we ran into another group of hikers who also were ascending.

It was a group of about 15 people, ranging in age from about 14 to about 65, it seemed.  The most interesting thing about the group, though, was that at least seven of the hikers were either blind or severely impaired visually, yet there they were on the trail, heading up to the top of the mountain.  And the most remarkable thing about them was that they were in training--this group of blind hikers was training for a hike up Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Now, I don't know too many people who would be able to make it to the top of that mountain, over 19,000 feet high.  But to think of doing it without the benefit of sight is a pretty difficult thing to imagine.  I like climbing, myself, but this will be a seven-day climb for them, meaning that they'll be carrying plenty of equipment and food with them.  They'll be on the go pretty much all day, every day, having to maintain an extremely high level of focus the entire time if they're not to injure themselves seriously.

But watching this group was an extremely inspiring experience.  There was no one asking for special favors when we saw them, no one complaining, no one bringing attention to their visual impairments.  It was simply a group of people with a common aim, and the willingness and desire to achieve that aim.

The blind climbers were certainly very careful, but they were by no means any slower than most day hikers that I've seen.  Some of them carried sticks or staffs, using them to "feel" the ground before them.  Others held on to another, sighted person for guidance.  Still others walked on their own, guided by another person who was describing very facet of the trail as they moved.

And these guides were perhaps the people who most moved me.

I was very impressed with the blind climbers, and I hold a great deal of respect for them.  But I was amazed at the patience and the dedication of the people who were guiding them up the mountain with a never-ending monologue.  "There's a step about six inches high right before you; it's clear for your right foot; snow coming up on your left, so step carefully; you'll have about four steps in the snow; then clear path for eight steps; now a bunch of rocks together. . . ."  and on and on.

I can't tell you how impressed I was with that type of pure giving, that kind of love, that kind of unconditional acceptance of the way things are and simply dealing with it.  This was pure giving--hour after hour of focusing on the needs of another person and making sure that those needs are met.  Without the constant speaking, the blind hikers never would have made it up the mountain, obviously.  And thinking forward, they would need to continue this all the way down the mountain, too.  As patient as I like to think myself being, I have to admit that I'm not sure that I would be able to do such a thing myself.  I'm not sure that I would be able to stay focused, that I would be able to continue to give and give in that way without getting something back.

And sure, I know about the awards of satisfaction, the sense of accomplishment that comes from a job well done, the gratification that we can feel when we help others.  But this was a lengthy, drawn-out sort of giving that brought out in me one of the strongest feelings of admiration that I've ever experienced.

I have no doubt that this group will be able to climb Kilimanjaro, and I wish them all the best when they do so.  Our hike that day was a blessed one, for we were able to witness and experience something that was truly inspiring:  blind climbers who were not kept at home by their impairments, and loving people who were giving all that they had to make sure that the blind climbers could achieve their goals.  It was a beautiful thing to witness, as well as a very humbling experience, and everyone in our group was just a little different afterwards.