Recollected in Tranquility

I remember William Wordsworth’s famous line in the 1800 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Recollected in tranquility. Yes.

I think about “recollecting” or gathering back to yourself powerful feelings in order to write. You sit in tranquility and you collect about you emotions from which, as Wordsworth then reminds us, you voluntarily write. He claims that this brings the writer a special kind of pleasure. It’s a different kind of writing to recollect and control the emotion, as opposed to writing in a frenzy of overpowering, involuntary emotions.

How interesting, how freeing to write in this way.

I think about having critical distance from a subject; you need enough time and space to become tranquil. You are calm and free from disturbance as you begin to feel what you want to feel again. In this way, your writing isn’t as self-indulgent (for you, about you, uncontrollable), but it takes on a new maturity and a kind awareness of audience.

You find pleasure in writing, not because you’re overcome with emotion, but because you aren’t anymore.


Your Own Little Sag Wagon

Today I learn from my cycling friend about the Sag Wagon. She claims that on her next 100 mile bike ride, I can drive the Sag Wagon. 

I’ve never heard of this expression in my life! I love it!

The Sag Wagon is the supply vehicle that travels alongside the cyclists with food, medical supplies, camping equipment, or anything else a cyclist might need on her ride. The Sag Wagon also drives ahead and sets up rest areas or camp sites so everything is ready when the cyclists come.

(I learn that “Sag” can stand for Support and Gear, Support Aid Group, or for the cyclist that is “sagging” behind and needs support.)

I love the whole idea of a Sag Wagon. It’s so protective and preparative. I think of that sweet verse in Deuteronomy 1:33 where we’re told God “went ahead of you on your journey, in fire by night and in a cloud by day, to search out places for you to camp and show you the way you should go.” I think of the chapters ahead in 31:6 where we’re told to “be strong and of good courage, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will not fail or forsake you.”

My Sag Wagon! I also think of that characteristic of God as one who journeys alongside us, protecting and providing at all times. Am I that kind of support to those around me? I think of the way a Sag Wagon driver watches carefully for any signs of distress amongst the cyclists. I think of how, at any given time, the driver is ready with supplies and places of rest for those who need restoration and replenishment.

Not everyone can be the cyclist; some of us must drive the Sag Wagon.

I want to be a replenishing aid to my community. I’m driving beside you, your own little Sag Wagon.


Exporting Imagination

My daughter tells me that she’s having trouble “exporting imagination.” It’s a strange verb to use. I imagine the country of her incredible brain needing to ship all that imagination out of some port. Otherwise, it’s all clogged up in there, swirling about.

Something’s in there, and it’s gotta get out.

She tells me that being a teenager is hard because imaginative play with dolls and toys does, unfortunately, begins to lose its appeal. “I need a new way to export all that imagination that’s still in there but can’t express itself the same way.”

All the imagination still in there? We need to built a port of export! 

We think about this for a good long time. We talk about designing something; we talk about visual arts; we talk about novel writing; we talk about handcrafts; we talk about photography; we talk about baking.

It’s so exciting to think about all the ways one might export imagination. We ended up exploring the art of thread crocheting to make very delicate and beautiful things. I imagine so many snowflakes and little creatures born from that tiny crochet hook.

The crochet hook: a port of export.

Afterwards, I remember that I, too, have an imaginative self inside that needs a port of export. I think about baking and writing. I think about home design and fashion. I think about new lesson plans, new family albums, and new poems to write.

Maybe I’ll pick up the guitar again.

Maybe I’ll take a dance class.

So many ports of exports, so little time. And finally, I remember to listen to the heart cry of teenagers around me who sense it all so much more deeply, so much more intensely. If she says something needs to get out, then she’s absolutely right.


Reverent, Cheerful, Courteous

Today I attended my first Eagle Scout Court of Honor for the son of some dear friends of ours. I cried at several points as I watched three young men receive their Eagle Scout award. Being in that room with members of the community and special honored guests brought such a sense of pride in my heart for these young people who have worked so very hard.

It was a reverent occasion. It was an opportunity to show deep and solemn respect.

My husband is also an Eagle Scout, and many times, I’ve heard him quote the Scout Law. You may know it already: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” All those years as a scout impressed deep within him these traits that do, in fact, shape the way he lives.

I listened to the scouts and their mentors repeat the Scout Law, and I loved, in particular, the character qualities of being reverent, cheerful, and courteous. I suppose it’s because I feel like these character traits have become part of an ancient past. I teach some college students who unfortunately lack these traits in their interactions with me as a college instructor.

Without droning on about it, I will simply reveal to you that I also encounter many discourteous, demanding young adults in my profession. Sadly, I have taught students who tell lies. Over the years, I have had students who have no problem cheating, plagiarizing, or making up excuses about illnesses when in fact, they are recovering from partying. I have students who need help with personal grooming and bad attitudes. I have students who are simply unfriendly and unhelpful.

I do love all my students. I do want to believe the best about them. But today, I remember that there’s a way to live that is the better self, the braver self, the self that abides by different standards of behavior. I want this kind of living for my students.

I wish we all followed the Scout Law. Being in that room elevated my heart and mind once again to inspire myself, my children, and my community to live with this kind of integrity and character that blesses the world.


When You Feel Blocked

So many students ask me about writer’s block and how I write so much every day. When I tell them that I rarely struggle with writer’s block, they just can’t believe it. Most students tell me how every sentence feels like wading through molasses. They don’t have ideas. They don’t know what to write. They can’t even begin. And even if they had a thought, they don’t want anyone to see it on paper.

It’s all blocked. Everything is blocked up inside.

I can help. I firmly believe that most of what we call writer’s block is about shame. It’s about the fear of audience rejection. When an artist internalizes a hostile or mocking audience, she freezes up inside. Everything she thinks or writes seems unintelligent, banal, and unoriginal. She uses backspace and delete because it’s just so bad. It’s just so terrible. 

But what if she internalized an accepting, loving, eager audience who couldn’t wait to see what she produces? What if she changed the shame response into one of intimacy and acceptance and vulnerability that an audience rewards with love and connection?

That’s why I spend so much time on community building and name games designed to build authenticity and vulnerability. That’s why I ask students questions that might embarrass them (like confessing the worst song they ever loved or the movie they’re embarrassed they love so much) so they can practice disarming the shame affect.

Just make of fool of yourself–in writing and otherwise–so you’ll realize that you’re not fooling anyone anyway. The real you probably isn’t some genius, original, always inspiring artist, and that’s OK. Send what you think out into the world, and practice your art over and over again without fear.

Keep your loving and accepting audience right in front of you at all times, and see if the writing doesn’t flow more easily.

(PS: Here are two photos from my fun photo shoot on campus)


An Unusual and Beautiful Request

A student I just met–we were strangers on Monday–asks if she can photograph me for her class “Stranger Project.”

“Sure,” I say. Why Not? 

She must find someone she knows nothing about, discover this person’s important stories, and document this conversation in settings that matter. 
So while I’m traipsing around my most treasured places on campus (the library, the coffee shop, by the birch trees, in my classroom), the student takes photos and listens to my stories. 
I tell stories of books, of nature and of God, of students, of coffee shop conversations, of writing and love and romance and food and daughters. All my stories. 
She listens. She documents. She makes art out of my life. It wasn’t that I was extraordinary or beautiful or famous; it was that I was simply an unknown person on a college campus. 
And to solidify my point that this was about common people and their common stories–with no special power or privilege– when I asked her if she would process the photos today and send them to me, she said, “Wow, so pushy.”
To which I said, “I am rather pushy.” 
I’m glad she noticed. 
I gather my things, zip up my coat, and venture back out into a world of strangers. I’m noticing them, now. I’m thinking about their places and their stories. I’m going to find some strangers and listen and notice. 
If the photographer shares the photos, I will share them with you! 


A Little Bit of Advice for Your Future Self

Last night, I read Gretchen Rubin’s “Habits Manifesto,” and one of her statements made me so excited. She says, “We should make sure the things we do to feel better don’t make us feel worse.”

I read this statement on the tail end of eating an enormous amount of barbecue potato chips because I really thought they would make me feel better after work. Crunchy. Salty. Yummy.

No. No, I felt worse.

All morning, I think about what I’m doing to feel better. Is this going to make me feel better or worse, ultimately? Will I feel better now but worse later? As I keep this statement in my mind, I realize how it not only helps with food choices, it helps with overconsumption of television and social media. Yes, this makes me feel better right now, but I’m going to feel worse later. 

I want to do things that make me feel better and that don’t make me feel worse later.


On that note, I choose to walk to school in bitter cold weather to invest in my future self. Then, my exercise partner informs me about a recent article she’s read on procrastination. She tells me that folks who procrastinate have a very hard time investing in their future selves. They sabotage the future self in favor of what they want to do right now. Folks who do not procrastinate keep their future selves in mind all the time. They think about completing tasks in order to free the future self from that work.

My future self! I want my future self to feel better and not worse!

Not feeling worse and investing in my future self: Good ideas, I think.

When I think about feeling better in ways that don’t make me feel worse and the idea of investing in my future self, I feel like I can make better choices today.


Your Pondering Song

I’ve been examining the psalms in scripture, and I find myself intrigued that King David, in his last recorded words in 2 Samuel 23, was described beautifully as the “sweet psalmist of Israel” instead of as a mighty warrior king. His sweet psalms to God were remembered in this moment in a way that overshadow his victories in battle. King David, was, perhaps more than anything else, a singer of songs that pondered God’s greatness, not his own.

I love the idea of a psalm. In Psalm 47, we are told, “God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a skillful psalm.” The word psalm, I learn, is a poem of contemplation, but the word comes from the Hebrew verb that means to wisely ponder. 

To think carefully and deliberately, to contemplate deeply, and then to record skillfully our praises to God constitutes a part of our calling as followers of Christ. I believe our pondering songs might take many artful forms, but I find myself challenged in this call to record skillfully, in some way, what I’ve contemplated deeply about Jesus.


Teaching the “Growth Mindset”

Today in a professional development seminar, I learned about the importance of fostering within students a “growth mindset.” Carol Dweck, who bases her findings on decades of research as a Stanford University psychologist, writes in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Successhow a growth mindset creates resilience and a true love of learning.

Essentially, I want to instill in students, myself, and my children that we can grow and change. Failure is about growth. Success is also about growth. Everything we do is about growth, not just achievement.

Instead of feeding into their hypersensitivity about grades and achievement, a teacher who models a growth mindset invites students to consider, obviously, their growth. Learning, curiosity, and enjoyment of the subject matter motivate differently and more sustainably in these kinds of environments.

I find myself excited about teaching and parenting all over again. Everything is about how we’re growing, what we’re learning, and how we’re getting better at loving well. Instead of just documenting achievements and measuring ourselves by certain fixed standards, we remember that we’re growing.

The growth mindset ushers in grace, motivation, and ultimately, hope.

We’re growing here.


On Teaching as a Sacred Vocation

Today I meet another class of students for an advanced writing course.

I write that sentence like it’s an ordinary thing, a casual blip in my day.

What’s actually happening involves a sacred intersection of souls that changes everything. They change me; I change them.

We can’t help it. Sitting together like this, we engage in a profoundly spiritual act of exchanging ideas, personalities, plans, and dreams. Even when I’m teaching professional materials like the bland cover letter for a job application, I consider the span of these adult lives. I consider the entire network of people they will know and love and communities they might change.

I consider the millions of verbs they’ll use and the kinds of sentences they might write. What love letters, resignation letters, or birth announcements? What essays that could shape culture forever? What film scripts we’ll cry over and hold our loved ones nearer because of? What court documents, political speeches, documentaries, or journalism pieces? What rants and complaints, what testimonies, what manifestos? What poems and stories? What eulogies, because death comes to us all? Oh, the sentences they hold within them!

It’s extraordinary when you think about how very precious each person is and how a teacher has this privileged position of knowing these students and activating them in some way.

It’s serious work. It’s beautiful work.