Scheduling Improv

Listening to Krista Tippetts’ interview with musician Bobby McFerrin, it first surprised me that he ever considered joining a monastic order, and that the main attraction was the silence! He also loved the scheduled cycles of each day, the listening for God. Then it made sense.

He describes himself as a “conveyer of song. I think of myself as a catcher of songs . . . . to grab it, and pull it down, and have it come out of my mouth.” He distinguishes this process from an attitude of performing, which he recommends avoiding, even if you’re “catching song” from a stage.

He’s known for his improvisational freedom, but did you know he practices it? He recommends setting a timer for ten minutes. Then open your mouth and sing, and don’t stop, even when your body screams to stop.

That works for writing, too. Set a timer for a little longer than usual, and keep going even when everything in you screams to stop. You can work up to longer sessions and greater improvisational freedom.

(I watched the unedited version, and I plan to listen to the edited version as well–not to miss the things that will be trimmed for radio length, but for the music they’ll add. There’s another great way to look at revision!)

Bobby McFerrin Catching Song

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Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

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

Summer Survival

Is summer over yet?

Oh, yeah, I don’t have a break. And my children do! So here’s what I want–or rather don’t want–for me (and everyone around me) to be sane:

No unfinished chores. No whining about housework–and not from Young Son either. No fussing about when allowance is due, and how much is owed. No rethinking every day what needs to be done. No raised voices. No conflict. Sound impossible?

It’s happening! It’s My Job Chart!

My Job Chart screen shotIt’s free. (It’s supported by Amazon purchases; many families choose retail rewards as part of their planning. That’s it!)

The evening we set it up, eleven-year-old Young Son rushed around to do all of his chores rather than wait a whole day to begin earning. Naturally. I had to watch my computer because he sneaked into my side to add additional jobs, like “Make Mom’s bed.” He awarded it 15 points. (Hmmm. Would you pay 15 cents to have your bed made daily?) The child who would rather scrub toilets than sweep floors is suddenly doing both.

My favorite part is the messaging between the site and the parent’s cell or e-mail (or both). Here are a few messages I’ve received:

“I love this. I think that the way that they do this is absolutely amazing.”

“You are the most awesome mom a kid could have. Thank you for raising me to be nice, kind, n civilized.”

“I love you so blinking much, that i’m jolly well tearing up,wot wot!”

“You’re a blinkin’ genius, wot wot!”

(Yes, I am, thank you, but in this case, credit goes to Gregg Murset, My Job Chart founder, financial planner, and father of six.)

And Young Son enjoys my notes as well:

“I always knew you were a hard worker, but this is inspiring. I appreciate all you’re doing.”

So I’ll return to my teaching prep now as a delightful child practices musical theater solos while scrubbing his bathtub.

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Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Dead Grandmothers

We’ve been known to joke about it in faculty meetings: how many grandparents some students can lose in a single year. (And yes, we do name names.) Here’s one professor’s concerns about responding to those situations: Thomas H. Benton (William Pannapacker) in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In my classes, the work has to be done at some point, no matter what obstacles must be overcome. There’s no authentic incentive to lie–and I hope I’m teaching them that a clear conscience matters–and yet it happens. I can empathize, but empathy doesn’t include passing an unprepared student on to certain failure. How could the deceased ancestor approve?

Ironically, students struggling with attendance and punctuality are often those inspired by dead grandmothers. “My grandma said it was time to stop being a baby and get my degree.” It sounds like a noble ambition to honor a parent’s or grandparent’s advice, but it’s never enough. They have to want it for more selfish, more immediate reasons.

Whenever a student returns from a funeral saying, “It’s hard. I’m grieving. Sometimes it’s hard to concentrate. But I know she [or he] wants me to finish,” I know they’re going to succeed, against this and all other difficulties. And those dead grandmothers are going to be proud.

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Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Record of Settlement

Icelander Baldur Hedinsson can trace his lineage to 1075; that’s how complete the Icelandic records are. It’s a culture based on reading through the dark winters and they wrote, too. (Oh, to have been an Icelander!) When NPR’s David Kestenbaum asked Baldur what followed his name in the Icelandic record of settlement, Baldur said, “Nothing yet. Just that I was born in Reykjavik.” The national record is already there, waiting for him to leave his mark. (Interview)

We all leave a legacy, for good or ill, and we seem to expend the most effort toward the public victories: the publishing, the championship, the contract, the job, the case, the deal, the ribbon cutting, the award.

Today I’ll attend the funeral of a high-powered New York journalist/marketing expert who had a life like that. Yet that’s not how I knew her. In her early 40s, illness had laid her low, refined her, and placed her in our path. I knew her as rescuer of a feral cats, chair of potlucks, best friend to an eleven-year-old boy, champion of dreams, watcher of cartoons. She was on the mend and she had the convertible to prove it. Her friends and family sighed with relief. No more worrying that she wouldn’t make it.

And then she didn’t make it. Nothing left to worry about, except to live up to those dreams she wanted to help us complete. And if we’re really something, we’ll be remembered for something even better, a good neighbor.

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Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

College Endeavor

NASA Chuck Tintera Endeavor final landing 05 31 2011
For NASA by Chuck Tintera: Endeavor final landing 05 31 2011

With the final landing of Endeavor, this shuttle chapter of space exploration will be closing soon. At the moment, I’m closing a college quarter and identifying with NASA. I have advantages over NASA: my physical life in adjunct teaching is only occasionally at risk, and I do know where I’m working for the summer.

But like NASA, this is also a career more celebrated than funded. Our institutions depend on our intelligence, passion, tolerance for uncertainty, and ability to make course corrections. Our circadian rhythms are rarely consistent, and even off-duty, our creative and critical thinking processes never end. When the project ends, evaluations are only beginning. Like NASA, we reclaim spare parts, including engines, for future study, and possible reuse.

And this time, some of my students are graduating. May they be happily and successfully launched.

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Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Photo © NASA by Chuck Tintera: Endeavor final landing 05 31 2011

My Favorite Kind of Payday

In my introductory college skills class this quarter, a student told me about repeatedly sabotaging his final Naval promotion because at that level, he’d be required to write reports galore. Writing terrified him. This week he submitted his report on this quarter’s learning–one of the best reports I’ve ever received. It was thoughtfully written, and formatted and illustrated with accuracy and artistry. Here’s my favorite paragraph: “This is how I learn best: learn, then apply, then do it all over again. When I was in school, I felt like the teachers asked me to put a bike together that had tons of bolts, screws, and nuts and only gave me a fork and told me to put it together in the dark. Now I have the tools and I can see.”

I cried. Now that’s a teacher payday! This is why we do it, so these beautiful, brilliant people can see what we see in them, and achieve what we know they are capable of.

The student must show up and submit to the work, and it helps if that student arrives humble and scared, but willing. Once again, I’ve seen the proof that writing is a learnable skill. And got to feel like the miracle worker. (That would be the student, really, but I did show him how.)