Beginning Again?

Robin Nest Photo © Linda Kloosterhof iStockPhoto®  #208792
Robin Nest Photo © Linda Kloosterhof iStockPhoto® #208792

Does it feel as though you’re always starting over? I’m beginning new projects, new rounds of old projects, new teaching quarter. Therefore, clients and students are doing the same; some students have even taken the leap to begin or return to their higher education. Their stories and their dedication inspire me.

Beginnings take courage, so I offer this favorite passage from John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us: 

“Perhaps beginnings make us anxious because we did not begin ourselves. Others begat us. Being conceived and born, we eventually enter upon ourselves already begun, already there. Instinctively we grasp onto and continue within the continuity in which we find ourselves. Indeed, our very life here depends directly on continuous acts of beginning. But these beginnings are out of our hands; they decide themselves. This is true of our breathing and our heartbeat. Beginning precedes us, creates us, and constantly takes us to new levels and places and people. There is nothing to fear in the act of beginning. More often than not it knows the journey ahead better than we ever could. Perhaps the art of harvesting the secret riches of our lives is best achieved when we place profound trust in the act of beginning. Risk might be our greatest ally. To live a truly creative life, we always need to cast a critical look at where we presently are, attempting always to discern where we have become stagnant and where new beginning might be ripening. There can be no growth if we do not remain open and vulnerable to what is new and different. I have never seen anyone take a risk for growth that was not rewarded a thousand times over” (2).

He also warns, “There are journeys we have begun that have brought us great inner riches and refinements; but we had to travel through dark valleys of difficulty and suffering. Had we known at the beginning what the journey would demand of us, we might never have set out. Yet the rewards and gifts become vital to who we are. Through the innocence of beginning we are often seduced into growth” (3).

Isn’t it great we aren’t in it alone? We support each other in our beginnings and our risk-taking, and here we are! Before we know it, we’re completing something and beginning again. Wishing you “great inner riches and refinements.”

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Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Photo © Linda Kloosterhof iStockPhoto®  #208792

Cultured Men Healthier and Happier

A Norwegian study has suggested that people who attend cultural events are healthier and happier, and that men may benefit most. Norwegian support for the arts already stands on the assumption that cultural events benefit health, so researchers sought evidence by surveying almost 60,000 Norwegians. Two studies had shown positive correlations between health and happiness and respondent’s cultural, sports, and religious activities–pretty much everyone who has a life–while this study focused on the cultural events, in both spectator and participant varieties.

This study concluded that “participation in receptive and creative cultural activities was significantly associated with good health, good satisfaction with life, low anxiety and depression scores in both genders. Especially in men, attending receptive, rather than creative, cultural activities was more strongly associated with all health-related outcomes.” (Abstract: Cuypers et. al. in Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health) 

Even a minimum of about one event per month showed positive results. (Randy Dotinga at Healthfinder.gov)

Further studies are planned. As another observer pointed out, this study might also show that healthier, happier people get out of the house. (Dotinga quoting Shigehiro Oisha)

I also notice that researchers included both viewing and participating in sports as “cultural events.” Here in the United States, those categories are mutually exclusive. So before you get your hopes up, Cultured Women, it’s premature to claim that symphony nights produces healthier and happier men than football games–this study didn’t compare types of events–but any activity is a start. And you’re welcome to test my hypothesis that Cultured Men are fifteen times more attractive.

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Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Have you seen this woman?

Photographer Bruce Davidson took this photo of a teenaged girl holding a kitten 50 years ago. Now as he receives the Outstanding Contribution to Photography award, he would like to find the subject. As he was interviewed, the line that made me smile was this first sentence of the life he imagined for her:

“Let’s hope she became a writer or an artist. Hopefully, she has a full life, and not a life on the street. She was carrying a sleeping bag with her when I met her. I don’t know. Maybe she has a daughter, or even granddaughter that looks just like her and is holding another cat. . . . ”

Did anyone hope you would become a writer or artist? And was that person a successful artist proving it can be done? If not, enjoy his encouragement. Let’s hope you do grow up to be a writer or an artist.

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Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

More about it:

Lisa Mullins interviews Bruce Davidson at PRI’s The World PRI

Sean O’Hagan article in for Guardian

(Remember Steve McCurry’s photo of a green-eyed Afghan girl, a 1984 National Geographic cover? She was found again 17 years later.)
National Geographic Afghan Girl Found

The Lady with the Pineapple Hair

As teenagers, we stifled giggles whenever we sat behind the lady with the pineapple hair. I theorized that she hoped its astounding height would be slimming. I also guessed that she did not own a hand mirror and had never seen her hair from the rear. This tallest of beehives was teased and sprayed with little back support, like a peacock’s display.

This was the late 70s, so the beehive had been out for nearly a decade. Such a fate seemed unfathomable when those years constituted half our lifespans. Now, of course, it’s obvious how someone could fall even farther behind the trends. (And let’s not discuss our own style of the era, the Farrah Fawcett mane.)

So what gives us away as writers of a certain age?

1) “Type two spaces after each final punctuation mark.” Gone. Now all manuscripts match the book rule: one space. It’s such a hard habit to break, I use Find-Replace to check my own work as well as my clients’.

2) “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, then tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em.” Who has time for that anymore? Get attention, get to the point, get out.

Editors! We’re makeover artists. Writer friends–the handheld mirror.

What have you changed in updating your writing style?
Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011

How to Stop Time

A student who’s juggling unemployment stress and family crises (while still getting his schoolwork done) asked, “Can you just tell me how to stop time?”

The same day, my son reported his friend Sarah’s Facebook update: “My oven has a button labeled Stop Time. I think they mean Stop Timer, but just in case, I’m not touching it!”

Beautiful Clock by J-eunit at Travelpod.com
"Beautiful Clock," Brussels, by J-eunit at Travelpod.com

Yes, it is possible to stop time: learn to meditate. I love the report of a Zen monk who said, “Usually, I meditate an hour a day, but today will be so busy, I’d better meditate for two.” It’s one way to stop the world and get off the ride for a few peaceful moments, then come back with the clarity to be efficient and creative. I love the way davidji of the Chopra Center puts it, saying that after meditation, we “carry a cupful, a teaspoonful, a thimbleful of stillness with us.” It sounds too simple to help–until you try it.

In several eras and situations, I’ve burned myself out, and I’m been flirting with that recently, so I’m calling more time-outs each day for prayer and meditation. Life is like swimming. If you struggle, thrash about, and panic, you’ll drown; the trick is to relax and float.

When we’re in that place of stress, panic, and burnout, we need expanded perspectives, greater self-care, and committed action. Check out these ideas:

Preventing Burnout: Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Coping Strategies.

On my daily checklist is “someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to.” (This might be Elvis Presley’s definition of happiness. At least that’s the earliest attribution I’ve found so far.)

As a working mom, the first two-thirds are a given. The third can be easily forgotten. But I’m easily pleased, whether it’s anticipating a simple salt soak and a good book, or the more luxurious gift of Shakespeare season tickets.

My ways of stopping time: release the past, savor the present, invite the future.

I Am Woman; Call Me She

Facebook logoSince Facebook already knows whether you are male or female, and even distinguishes between your “Cousin (male)” and “Cousin (female),” a distinction the English language doesn’t make, then why can’t you have “his” or “her” in your profile updates? He “changed their profile.” “It’s their birthday.” Even if you’re a twin or so, how many of you are taking action on your singular account? So Facebook has recently revised its most awkward profile update! “It’s their birthday” is now “It’s [insert name]’s birthday.” I am delighted. That’s another way to handle this tricky pronoun matching.

Many editors have given in to the colloquial mismatch of certain singular subjects with plural pronouns, as in “Everyone should master their native language.” But when the subject is a known person, and the platform has already classified you by gender, why be lazy?

This construction is primarily a singular-plural issue, but it’s also a gendered language issue. I am woman; call me She.

Two decades ago, I resisted some of the gender-sensitive revisions as silly. Chairman became chair, which was perfect. But when a university vice-president stopped the presses on the student handbook I had written so she could change ombudsman to ombudsperson, I argued against it. It was an ugly solution, and it didn’t match the sign on the door or the listing in the directory. Who knew how many faculty senate meetings it would take to change it? And what was next? Hu-person? I lost.

A few years later, I heard Alleen Pace Nilsen present some of her gender-based language research. She studied preschoolers and learned that no three-year-old believed a mailman could be a woman. Man was not innately generic.

I still dragged my editorial pencil. I had distinguished between the pronounced schwa of ombudsman as generic, and the short a in mailman as specific, so I gave that up. Yet I still resisted excluding myself from the historic generic, as in “All men are created equal” (though women weren’t voting at that time) and “One small step for man–one giant leap for mankind.” Count me in!

Because I am old enough to remember stewardess, waitress, and mailman, I still feel delight whenever I hear or speak of a flight attendant, server, or mail carrier. Notice that none of these include that awkward suffix, person. There are usually more elegant solutions.

We’d all cringe if you called me authoress or poetess. They sound pejorative and we’d know you’re at least ninety. And yet, I also cringe when a woman who performs on stage or film prefers actor. Can you imagine the Academy Awards becoming so generic, there’s only one Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor award? (Want to guess who would usually win?) Acting is one career where gender still matters—in a good way. Anytime someone is cross-cast, you can bet it’s a major plot point. That’s because acting imitates life, and gender is, well, a fact of life.

By the way, in Spanish, gender is far more frequently classified, so Facebook confuses many more terms in that language. I’m sure they’ll get it right soon. We know Facebook’s coders are smart enough to add a few corrective lines.

Thank you for polishing the details in your prose. One small step for pronouns—one giant leap for humanity.

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011

Image: Facebook’s logo

Meet linguists Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don L. F. Nilsen (Don was my thesis chair.)