Remember This When You Feel Like You’re Failing

While many people set resolutions and goals this time of year, very few make a plan for the frustration and failure that inevitably follow learning. If you want to truly begin something new this year, remember this: new learning, new skills, and new habits always sit just beyond frustration. So often we give up when things get frustrating, instead of recognizing that we are actually on the right path and closer to our goal.

No one likes to be frustrated. No one likes to fail. So how do we push past frustration and failure to get what we want?

Change our minds.

I’m serious. We have to reframe frustration in our minds. We have to talk differently to ourselves about it if we want to get past it.

As I began sending out my fiction writing for critique and editing a couple years ago, my work came back with questions I didn’t know the answers to. I felt like a failure. What I had polished into my best at that time, was woefully inadequate and it hurt. I stuffed the pages in a drawer, whined and cried, and threw up my hands in disgust at myself.

Fortunately, I’m addicted to writing and words, so I eventually brought my work back into the light and started working through the questions. They were good questions. They forced me to think, revise, and ultimately grow.

Around the same time, I had a couple kids in middle school who were forever stuck on homework at the kitchen table. Pre-Algebra wasn’t fun the first time I took it, so imagine how fun it is when I’m looking at it for the third time. “It’s too hard! I can’t do it!” (Make sure you read that with a nasally whine and draw out the vowels for a few seconds each for full effect).

Was it hard? Yes.

Could she do it? Yes.

Why was it hard then? Because it was new.

image: Creative Commons CC0

I started using a phrase with my own kids, and later with my students to change the way they talk about their frustration. Instead of “This is too hard!” I challenge them to say, “This is new to me.” Just because it is new doesn’t mean we can’t do it. It just means we need a little more time. We can stick with hard things and they will get easier.

Why do we expect to master a new skill the first time we try it? The first twenty times we try it? The first hundred times?

Have we removed all obstacles for ourselves and our kids to avoid the frustration that comes with failure? If so, we have robbed ourselves and them of countless opportunities to learn and become resilient.

Like a muscle that is stretched and becomes sore, our lives and learning require a bit of discomfort to acquire new learning, skills, and habits. When you get frustrated this month and feel like giving up, ditch the negative thoughts and remember this: It’s hard because it’s new, but it’s worth pushing though the frustration to the learning on the other side.

On a Father Going Home

Losing my grandfather and father-in-law in the same year feels like a kind of carelessness…as if I had any control, as if there would ever be enough time. Grief is always a shock, a denial, an anger that makes way for a softening if I let it. As we remember my husband’s father today, it is a comfort to know they are doing what they have always done: leading the way.

On A Father Going Home

The wind swept across the cemetery
Drying tears as fast as they fell
My preacher husband shouted grace over the wind
I don’t know which one spoke louder

I wanted to say, “That hole’s far too small
to hold his heart and his life.
Let me dig it a little bigger please.
Let us hold him a bit longer until I make it fit.
A shovel, please, a shovel.”

My man-child steered me back to the car
Kicking up dust, defying death
one step at a time, even if unwilling
I glance back at the emptiness
“It was just a shell,” the wind whispered,
“Don’t wish him from glory back to ashes.”

A patriarch goes before us
Forging ahead like he always has
Reminding us with our memories of him
We gain a life by giving it up
We will not grieve as those with no hope
Knowing he pointed the way with his life
And our dad, he is already home.

suelarkinsweems, Dec 2016

creative commons

Contributing a Verse

While we had a great summer break, I am ready for this summer to fade. It has been loud and hard and overwhelming– the world seems bent on turning itself inside out.
A friend recently wrote a piece about returning to nature to find solace when the world seems to be spinning out of control. Her meditation on the ocean reminded me of the question Whitman asked and answered in a section of Leaves of Grass, and his words encouraged me:

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,

Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
~Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1892
gorge-801839_1280Hard to believe he was describing his own world in the 1800’s and not modern day America. My friends, we are still here and the powerful play goes on. Let’s contribute a verse that makes a difference for years to come– that we will be remembered for our compassion and fierce grace.

On Ideas: The Satires and Just Who am I Ridiculing?

This is part two of a three-part-series on ideas I explored in the short story collection Shelf Life, now available on Amazon

Satire is always dangerous to write, mainly because not everyone will get it, usually because the piece is taken literally or discarded as a brute attack. That’s not an indictment on the reader, necessarily, just my own observation of why satire is so often misread or misunderstood. Often, satire IS an attack—one intended to expose things often hard to confront or even examine up close. At its best, it makes us laugh AND wince. Sometimes, it just plain makes us mad.

The two stories that have the most potential to make you mad in Shelf Life are both satires on modern day social problems and anxieties. Just who am I ridiculing? Myself.

Let me tell you a little story about a time we had a lockdown drill when I was an elementary school librarian. Did you know we have lockdown drills in school? Oh yes, along with fire drills, earthquake drills, tornado drills, bad-test-score-release-date drills…(just kidding about that last one. Maybe.) Well on this particular day I had Mr. R’s first and second grade class who had quite a bit of personality and a heavy dose of trouble. (I hear you, “Sue, aren’t they little? How can they already be that much trouble? Maybe you’re not doing this teaching thing right.” Noted. I will try to do better. Meanwhile, please go substitute teach for a week in kindergarten and then come back and I will gladly hear your wise counsel.) This particular lockdown was before 9/11, before Sandy Hook, before Columbine, so while we knew lockdowns meant anything from unauthorized person on campus to active shooter, we hadn’t seen these types of mass shootings. Well, they called a lockdown and in the library, and the designated “safe” place was my tiny office. I crammed twenty-plus kids in there on the floor and we waited. I won’t pretend it was quiet. These kids were far too creative for that. There were giggles in small ripples until one roly-poly blond haired boy began a harrowing tale of what he would do when the ax-murderer he was SURE was on campus busted through the library doors and hacked through the glass window above us. I suddenly had a pile of kids under me, several crying. My little blonde friend ran down a list of things he would do to neutralize the situation, including carve a machete out of the paper cutter blade on the counter (what?) and ending with how he would pick up the desk chair as a shield while he fought the bad guy, and  everyone should stop being pansies about the whole thing. He was equal parts terrifying and heroic. It was the longest lockdown I have ever been in, and after the class left, I’m pretty sure I closed the library for the day and had a personal lockdown in a dark room.

The idea for “Distractions” came to me after watching a new kind of active-shooter response for classrooms that suggested spreading out the kids and having them throw ping pong balls at an active shooter to distract. I understand what the video was saying: don’t bunch kids up in the corner (or in the library office) where they can all be targeted easily. Help them be proactive (assuming ping-pong balls can be considered proactive). “Distractions” asks how we prepare for the worst and keep our sanity in tact. I’m not sure it’s possible.

For the record, I don’t have ping pong balls in my room, but I have several strategically placed Shakespeare anthologies, weighing about ten pounds each which are all fair game in an emergency.

“The Perils of Reading” is a satire on addiction, which is never funny. Addiction usually begins as a faulty answer to a life issue, whether it is numbing pain or grief, masking boredom, or feigning control. I have long been interested in how our society tends to treat addiction only when it crosses into chemical dependency. While treating chemical dependency is absolutely necessary, I think we fall painfully short in helping each other manage pain, boredom, change, grief, and crisis. This story is about a woman who can’t see that she is still struggling with an isolating addiction despite her sobriety.

I tend to feel most alone when I focus on controlling variables in my life at the expense of relationships; much like Barb does in the story. I’m trying to remember that “All things are permissible for me, but not all things are beneficial” (1 Corinthians 10:23), especially when those things isolate me from real community or are simply self-serving. The only way to complete freedom is in Christ; Freedom requires a small step forward in faith— a step that always feels awkward and uncomfortable because it rubs against my habits.

Whether we are trying to control our lives through food or exercise, numbing pain or grief with alcohol or binge-watching Netflix, or sleeping through pain—my prayer is that we wake up and see ourselves clearly in Christ. I pray we would know we are completely and fully loved already and that we might rest in that peace as we walk forward fully present in our lives.

 

On Ideas: “Nevermore” and Perspective

This is part one of a three-part-series on ideas I explored in the short story collection Shelf Life, now available on Amazon free for the next couple days

Shelf-Life-KindleIn the short story “Nevermore,” a writer orders her own gravestone after an embarrassing public debacle, and the grave maker renders two visions of the story she might pursue with her life. “Nevermore” was a story I wrote for a writing contest on the theme “creatives.” Choosing a grave maker might be a bit grim, but I thought about how a grave and monument maker might encounter the highest and lowest moments in people’s lives.

Stories make a mark, too.
My maternal grandmother knew this well as she surprised our family one Christmas with a small forty page memoir. She typed it up old-school, and it included photographs and family history timelines. It begins with a kidnapping in 1645 (not kidding) and covers as much of our family history as she knew, including my grandparents’ fifty-plus years of marriage. It ends with a wish that we continue the story. It was three hole punched in a small binder and an utter treasure. IMG_1217

We want something of permanence, and we’re faced daily with mundane tasks like laundry and dishes that seem to chip away at our desire to do things that last longer. I wanted to write a story that encapsulated the role that perspective plays in how we manage the mundane.

This story is available free online here at Short Fiction Break (a great place for short stories!).

If you happen to pick up and read a copy of Shelf Life, I’d love it if you left an honest review to help lead others to the collection. Thanks as always for your support!

A Farewell

for Popo…I’m not sure 98 years was enoughbecky.david.sue

In March, I left the South’s dying winter
flew home to Arizona
to stand with my people
breathing a collective farewell
to a patriarch, near-centenarian
dear faces flooded the church doors
the sun bright, unawares
I sat diagonally behind my grandmother
a dangerous place, I know
I’d never seen her cry
I couldn’t bear to sit next to her
too coward to fill Popo’s space
too grieved to sit further than an arm’s reach
a reach I’d never make, even if I could
there’s only so much affection
a stoic can take
and a church full of time’s collected people
is an attention that weakens the strongest reserve

My father and his brothers
took the stage
I sat astonished as they played “Bugler’s Holiday”
three trumpets and a piano
tearless, soaring, Popo loved to hear them play
I didn’t cry
I sat with my people
sending silent strength to the stage
praying they would make it through
I knew if one of them broke
it would surely bring the sun down
that the space left behind would crush us

My uncle Gary spoke and sang
of a precious father who stayed, ever-present
an astonishing gift to stay
to be solid in flesh, even when too loud
at ball games and when building projects
a faithful employee, a deep well of faith
When he could hardly walk
he pledged to bring communion
buying the crackers and juice
once a month at the Walmart
a man who stayed, who served

The brothers sang again and the preacher spoke
and I measured my breaths… almost there

But then a Marine in full dress blues
and a head of gray hair came up the aisle
a folded flag in his hands
he murmured a country’s thanks
she accepted the flag, grateful its delivery
had been delayed, had not come
in 1944 when she would have been younger than me

And my Uncle Rod began playing “Taps”
the last gift given
tears streaming down his face
the trumpet’s notes perfect and clear
the loss floating up to the rafters
signaling the end of ninety-eight years of days
tears streamed down my grandmother’s face
I followed her lead, tears dripping
I fought to stay still, to stay standing
Respects done, we shook hands
staggered out into the sun, still too bright
the loss like the stripped trees of winter
space where fullness should be
we carried the lilies and flower baskets home
to fill an empty place at the table

I flew back home to my family
empty and full and fragile
And as I walked out of the airport
I gasped
the bare trees of winter had sprung white
blooms full and puffed against the azure sky
like Popo stumbled on his way home
and shook out the dust of heaven—
fullness where the space had been
He split the seasons with his final trip
leaving spring’s promise behind to fill his place
hope to keep facing the sun
a farewell and a reminder
To stay and to stand with my people

In Defense of Play

As most of you know, I teach English and creative writing at a local high school. My creative writing classes are working on creative nonfiction, and I typically spend a week or two helping them collect dozens of ideas. Creative nonfiction lends itself well to childhood memories, and I decided to try something to shake some of those memories loose, while helping students analyze their own creative process.

I assigned a day of play.

It took me a couple days to pull together the materials: play dough, legos, water paints and paper, coloring books and pencils, and fort-building materials (sheets and duct tape). On the day of play, I dragged four bags of fun from my car to my classroom and waited in anticipation— this was either going to be phenomenal or a complete flop.

As they came in, I directed them to choose one of the activities from a list on the board and to play for the period. I wish I had video. The questions came rapid-fire:

“How will this be graded?”
“What for?”
“Are you serious?”
“Is there a rubric?” (I nearly died.)
“What’s the catch?”

I had decided ahead of time that I would not interrupt the process with explanations or analysis. I was determined to get them to play. My answer repeatedly was: “No catch, no grade, just play.”

Most cheered. Some whined. But everyone chose something and began. As soon as the lids came off the play dough and the sound of digging in the lego bin ensued, the mood shifted.

“I remember this smell!”
“Can you find another wheel for my car?”
“I haven’t done this in a long time.”
“Can I stay in here the rest of the day?”

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Most were relaxed and jubilant by the end of the period. Some spent the period frustrated with their creation. Most telling? No one was on their phone, except to take pictures (which I asked them to do). When I called for five minutes until cleanup, there were groans and protests.

As they left, I heard statements like:

“I feel so relaxed.”
“That was more fun than I thought.”
“Can we do this again tomorrow?”
“I forgot how much I loved doing this.”

And my favorite, from a junior with a pretty intense schedule:
“I really needed this. It was completely therapeutic.”

The next day, we had a debrief, first in writing and then aloud. When asked how they felt when told to “play,” the answers were all over the map:

“I kept waiting for the catch.”
“I wasn’t sure what you meant.”
“It felt stupid and condescending.”
“I thought maybe you didn’t have lesson plans.” (HA!)
“I was so happy.”

When asked to analyze their creative process and choices, most students admitted they chose something they knew they could do and either replicated something they had done before or followed a model online (yes, some students looked up examples— from play dough to drawing inspiration). Most noted that they took a minute to envision the final product and then set about making the medium match their vision. Others just began playing and let the free form become a shaped product. Only a few (out of 100 students) tried something they had never done before.

I think their experience mirrors what we see in a society where failure is associated with shame. Students (and adults) are either afraid of or completely oblivious to opportunities to take creative risks, even in non-threatening environments where the price of failure is low. I expected to see some of this, but I was surprised how many didn’t take more risks. I shared the findings from Tom Wujec’s Marshmallow Challenge (it’s a design challenge–not an eating challenge). He found the groups who developed and tested prototypes, failing multiple times in the process, tended to be more successful than those who sat and tried to plan it out in advance in their heads—and kindergartners were one of the most successful groups.

We discussed how they felt emotionally, intellectually, and socially during the activity, and all but my few frustrated artists said it was the most relaxed they’d felt in school in a long time. When asked why it was relaxing, students had a number of ideas from “no grade pressure” to “being able to use my hands to create something.”

Many gleaned memories to use in their writing. Some were nostalgic, “I realized this was the last time I would probably play at school, which made me a little sad.” Some students found their story in the actual activity, like the student who was thrilled to help build a fort, saying she had never done it before.

At the end, I revealed the three-fold purpose of our activity:

1. Collect childhood memories for writing.

2. Analyze creative process and risk-taking.

3. Demonstrate the need for space and down time for optimal creativity and performance in any field.

When I planned the activity, I thought the second objective was likely the most important, but after hearing their reflections, I found the third one was nearly foreign to my students who stand in front of a firehose of information and connection all day long, both academic and social. A few students came in later that week and said they had dug out their coloring books or paints at home— to help them relax. As we fight depression, poor social skills, over-dependence on devices, and over-scheduling in our lives, I wonder if creating more directed and undirected down time and space would help us reconnect with the best versions of ourselves. I think it’s worth exploring with a bit of play.

 

Feedback

I’ve realized that I am often seeking feedback whether I admit it or not. From the pictures I post online to the conversations I have with friends, I am often looking for approval, agreement, commiseration. I am slowly learning to accept that I am doing the best I can with what I have today, while remaining open to growth.

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In workplaces, feedback can be tricky, because we so often link our identity with our vocation, so any grow points offered feel like an invalidation or (if poorly delivered) an attack.

I just finished the evaluation process at my new school. Fifteen pages detailed how  well I did my job based on four forty-minute long observation visits to my classroom, along with my own narrative of what’s happening. (I passed with flying colors, don’t worry.) There weren’t any grow points offered. I’m at a place in my career where I am not afraid to ask for honest feedback. I’m often surprised by how difficult it is for people to say much that’s constructive outside of just stating what they observe, which is actually the best feedback.  Sometimes I think I’m looking for an evaluation when I just need eyes to help me see my blindspots, as well as to reframe what is and isn’t there.

In writing it’s much the same. Early on, writers tend to work in the dark, in journals they promise to burn. This is a necessary step, but don’t stay there. Begin to develop work for others to read. The best thing I’ve done on my journey is sharing my work and asking for feedback. Sometimes I post on my blog where an audience responds or ignores it. Other times I share only with a small group of writing friends, who I trust to give me constructive feedback.

When I began posting my work, I was very careful and precious with what I posted, not wanting to post anything that might draw a negative reaction. When readers chimed in and said something didn’t work or made a suggestion, at first I recoiled. Luckily, I’ve been around long enough not to respond immediately when I’m emotional, and within a day or two, I was able to evaluate what was said. So often, I have to evaluate the feedback I’m given, and I’ve been using these three guiding points:

  1. Source: does this person know my heart and genuinely want to see me be better? (If yes, I need to understand the feedback and use it. If no, I need to consider what might be helpful and discard the rest.)
  2. Audience: Is this reader the intended audience? If so, I begin asking questions to help me understand where it missed the mark. If no, I let it go. (Trolls and mean comments are easy to rehearse, but ultimately unhelpful. I’m working to let those go asap and rehearse the positives instead).
  3. Content: I’ve learned to accept that most feedback can reveal strengths and weaknesses. When a reader says “I don’t get this character” or “There’s too many characters for me to keep straight,” I revise. Does it sting? For a second, but it makes the work stronger.

If you’ve been writing for a while, consider that maybe your next step is to show your work to someone else.  It’s one of most terrifying, vulnerable things you can do, but it immediately pushes you to grow.

If you find yourself seeking feedback this week in any arena, ask yourself why. Is it to grow? Or feel validated? Do you need to be encouraged? Ask for what you need instead of hinting around it. When I ask someone to visit my room at school or read my manuscript, I’ve started asking for what I need, and then I listen and sort through what others observe. Also, accept where you are on your journey. Honest feedback makes you question things— don’t let it tear you down or paralyze you. Use what you can and release the rest.

Next up: how to give better feedback

Watering

This small memory meditation was originally published in Alive Now, March/April 2007. He could use some prayers today, as 98 years press hard on a body. So grateful for him, and for a few words that hope to express what he’s taught me. 

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He shuffles along, the green snakelike hose shaking in his eighty-year-old grip.  I watch from my assigned post at the water faucet, waiting for the word to turn it off.  Today is a rare day for me, as I help my grandfather water the grounds at the church.  He comes three times a week, faithful as the sunshine here in Arizona.  This is my first time to help, as I always think I have more important things to do.  He is quiet, and all I hear is the soft shooshing of the water and the occasional squeak when the water pressure changes.  What is he doing this for? I think to myself.  He is an educated man, and a mechanical man, able to fix most anything.   Here he is watching the water pool under the roses.

My grandfather’s face jumps to my mind when I think of the humility of Christ.  I see his face, followed by his hands, which I always remember doing tasks many would consider menial.  I fall far short of the example of Christ as I stand here watching my grandfather watching the water.  I think God wants me to do great things for him, and I tend to pass by any task which I feel is beneath me.  Father, forgive my arrogant heart!  Not everyone can water someone else’s roses with a willing and humble heart.  Not me.  My grandfather can most days.   It reminds me that not everyone could die someone else’s death with a willing and humble heart.  Only Jesus.  His sacrifice humbles me, and helps me to understand my grandfather’s service.  My grandfather is not only watering, but whether he realizes it or not, he is practicing humility. He is showing me a better way if only I will stop long enough to water with him.

2016: Remembering Priorities

I tend not to make sweeping resolutions each January, but I do evaluate and tweak ongoing goals. Quite a few years ago, I realized that everything that was important to me aligned within about five priorities:

  1. Spiritual health
  2. Family connections
  3. Physical health
  4. Meaningful work and creativity
  5. Well-managed resources

When I remember my priorities, it is much easier to say no to things that do not fit. Can I create a hundred pioneer bonnets for the stagecoach days parade? Hmmm… no- while I am capable (maybe with the help of youtube), it doesn’t fit in my priorities. Can I run an ultra-marathon this year? Hmmm…no- while I could do it, the other areas would have to sacrifice too much for it to make sense. Each month, I do a body/mind check and ask myself what area feels out of balance, where my time has gone, and what I need to adjust. I fail quite a bit to reach my ideal balance in each area, but I think overall, knowing priorities has helped me accept the various seasons of each year/life stage.

Now that we are mostly settled back in the states, I need to make my health a daily focus, instead of the inconsistent juggling act it was the last six plus months of 2015. Additionally, this year, I need to face the monsters of doubt and fear, especially in my work and resources. I’m working to identify action steps and take them- one at a time. Contentedness comes in a journey with purpose, and making small, deliberate steps forward is the one thing I know will help me look back without regret.

In January, I’ll be posting about small wonders and better writing, as well as releasing some poetry. Hope you’ll stop by and share a bit. Happy new year, friends!