I see your courageous spirit and honor it

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It takes courage to compete in the school spelling bee!

In these days of corruption, constant shocks and upsets, each of us need to call upon our inner warrior of light. Like the heroes of popular culture, we must go within and conjure our brightest, most courageous selves to come forward and lead. We are collectively in the midst of an unprecedented learning/ teaching moment—through the power of compassion, heart bravery, and deep listening to one another, we are growing our human “movement of movements” toward a new epoch for humanity and Earth.
Dear Readers, what a messy, chaotic and exhilarating moment it is!

Every day the national and world headlines are filled with examples of people standing up and speaking truth to power. We applaud their bravery and empathize with the repercussions of those acts of courage. Some are chastened, others repressed, and sadly, some pay the ultimate price of their very lives for taking decisions of extreme moral courage. Yet, if we pay attention to the people in our very own daily sphere, we see that acts of bravery are all around.

I’d like to give you an example of ordinary children displaying courage from my own life. This school year I am tutoring children who struggle with reading in an elementary school outside of Denver. A month ago, I volunteered to coordinate the school’s annual spelling bee. Having never organized one before, I had quite the learning curve of how to pull off this minor feat. Fortunately, through the help of a few knowledgeable teachers and the kind-hearted principal of my school, I managed to check off all the moving parts, finalize the contestant list of 22 students, hold practice sessions, and arrange for our bee to happen.

Finally, the day for our spelling bee arrived. At 1:30 pm, a group of parents and family members were seated in our cafeteria on one side, rows of nervous student contestants on the other. There were 22 students ranging from third through fifth grade, all of whom had cleared the 85% correct score on the written test they needed to compete. I sat at the table with three judges, all teachers from our school. Our principal acted as the MC and Pronouncer (the one who gives the spelling words to each student). She did a fabulous job of setting the tone—this is fun, it’s practice, and if you wish, you can use this spelling bee as one of the amazing extra things you did in elementary school this year!—for the students. Each student wore a name badge, and took their turn introducing themselves to the audience and judges. First we had a practice round as a warm up to help them get used to the protocol of answering—“olive: O L I V E: olive.” Then the rounds began. For the next 45 minutes the students competed, taking their respective turns at spelling increasingly more difficult words. Slowly, students spelled a word incorrectly and were out of the competition. After seven rounds, only the top two spellers remained. Then came the final, nail-biting round of spelling. If one student missed the word, it went to the other to attempt the correct spelling. If they both got it wrong, another word was given. This continued for about 10 minutes as we all watched intently to see who would be the ultimate winner. The finalists were a fourth grade boy and a fifth grade girl. They both did an extraordinary job of staying cool while concentrating on their mental puzzling out of the spelling words. In the breathless finish, the girl spelled incorrectly, leaving the boy to give the correct answer and the prize of first place in the bee. Afterwards, congratulations were showered upon not only the top finalists and winner, but for all the students who competed in our spelling bee.

Watching our students competing today, I was struck by the degree of bravery they each displayed by their act of showing up, standing up, spelling the words to the best of their ability, and stepping away when they failed to give the correct answer. There was an undeniable feeling of pressure on each of them to perform well, to give the correct spelling, and to concede defeat with grace. Each student performed admirably, showing all of us adults that doing something difficult can be an inspiring, courageous act and one that they can be proud of accomplishing.

Dear Readers, in these extreme and uncertain times, I encourage you to take notice of where and how you act courageously in your daily life. Who in your sphere inspires you to be brave? And just as importantly, who do YOU inspire to be brave? There has never been a more urgent need to notice and celebrate courage and compassionate action than right now. Keep calm, stay steady, and keep on going. The world needs your light, kindness, and your moral courage.

 

We need Mary Oliver more than ever

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www.storemypic.com

Mary Oliver left her body this past week, on January 17, 2019. The poet who spent a good deal of her life musing about death has finally experienced it firsthand. I believe she was ready to go and find out what’s on the other side of the veil.

Some have written of her work in less than kind terms, as is always the case when a creative person becomes famous. But for the many fans of her poetry across the world, Mary Oliver remains a beloved commentator of the human heart, keen observer of the natural world, and philosopher of life on planet Earth.

I first became acquainted with Mary Oliver’s poetry when I was in my early thirties. I purchased her book New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, Boston), at a poignant moment in my life when her words resonated deeply in my soul. That was over twenty years ago.  Since then, I’ve had certain periods when poetry took a prominent seat in my everyday and I’d pull out her volume anew. Her poems never failed to inspire and affirm my experience, as old and beloved friends usually do.

In this week’s New York Times articles about her death, journalists compared her style of nature poetry to Walt Whitman and even Thoreau and Emily Dickinson—she kept good company. But Oliver was fully present in our time, having lived through the majority of the 20th century and the start of the 21st. Yes, her overarching themes were about the dynamic relationship between nature and human beings, and she mostly used first person point of view.  In the poetic tradition, the personal I is the most effective way to carry meaning to the reader. In a world full of artifice, egoism, arrogance and materialism, Oliver was a voice of sanity, reason and heart. Her keen observations were unflinching as she deftly described and questioned our human experience in the face of vast and unexplainable forces. Her voice was at once tender and unsentimental, reminding us of the importance of nature within our human experience.

In these days of ever increasing technology, artificial intelligence, and furiously increasing capitalism which by now is threatening the very existence of life on Earth, Mary Oliver’s deceptively simple, clear-eyed verse is more needed than ever. In her poem The Sun (New and Selected Poems, 1992) she asks,

have you ever felt for anything
such wild love—
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty-handed—
or have you too
turned from this world–

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

In her poem The Ponds (New and Selected Poems, 1992) she marvels at the perfection of the wild lilies growing at the edges of the ponds near her home. She writes

I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided—
and that one wears an orange blight—
and this one is a glossy cheek

half-nibbled away—
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.

still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—
that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

Oliver remains a master of metaphorical poetry. A familiar pattern in her work is to first give the reader gorgeous descriptions of the natural world, and then deftly weave them within the framework of the human experience. I know of no other poet who uses this technique so seamlessly and succinctly. She simultaneously marvels at nature, wonders about the divinity who created it all, and asks us how to reckon with the unfathomable mystery that is our life, our planet, our home. Here is one of my favorite poems,
The Summer Day (House of Light, 1990).

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

In our present, highly chaotic and anxious times, reading Oliver’s calm, forthright and clear-eyed poems brings a sense of grounding, peace and sanity to our souls. Much like meditation and walks in the woods (for those fortunate enough to have woods nearby in which to walk), her poems remind us to be present, to breathe deep, and to be awake to the wonder of life inherent here on our beloved Earth. It is more challenging than ever to maintain sanity in such a world, but Oliver reminds us, through unerringly clear vision, of why we must do so. In her famous poem In Blackwater Woods (American Primitive, 1983) she writes,

Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

You must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

On an ordinary Thursday in January, 2019, Mary Oliver let it go. She let go of the world after holding it against her bones, caressing it ever so lovingly, so tenderly.  I am sure I speak for many others when I say how very grateful I am to her for holding up such a compassionate and clear mirror so we all may see ourselves and our planet reflected within it.

 

Help Wanted: Writer

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I have the audacity to call myself a writer. With my confidence boosted by my recent graduation from university summa cum laude, and a freshly minted minor in professional writing and a new sense of the possible, I’m ready to begin the job search. Oh boy.

So I do what any respectable college grad would do, I go online. One hour on LinkedIn leads to several rabbit holes and job boards. Before I know it, I’m on Indeed, signing up for job alerts to be conveniently delivered to my inbox. The alert—Writer.

The next day, I receive email alerts from my new friends at Indeed. The subject line: “770 jobs for writers” naturally catches my attention. I click the bait and start scrolling. As anyone who has an English degree and desire for paid work knows, there are nearly as many descriptions of writer as stars in the heavens. I read job postings for the following positions (this is the sound-byte version):

Technical writer—underwriter for insurance company—grant writer—proposal writer—software writer/engineer—advertising copy writer—marketing department web content writer—visual storyteller for another website’s marketing department—and that was in the first ninety seconds of scrolling. Lesson learned, I realize that being a writer means a lot of things to a lot of people. Sometimes it’s tough to remember I’m living in the era of hyper-technology, where bots are the first line of defense for actual, live humans that I have faith exist, somewhere.

Being a person who thinks of writing as an avocation, career, passion and creative undertaking, it’s a bit of a disappointment to see how misconstrued and misrepresented the term has come to be in our post-post modern world. We are at the point where pretty much anyone who knows how to type (on a device of any size) can call themselves a writer and get away with it. And while they may be technically correct (no doubt some dictionary definition of writer states “a person who writes words down somewhere”), to my mind, the term writer has much deeper connotations. It’s like a person who can bang out a simple tune on a guitar calling himself a musician. Or someone who opens a can of chili beans and microwaves them with a tortilla and a slice of cheese calling herself a cook. The nuance seems to be lost.

Back to the job search. Clearly, asking the Indeed bot to search for a word as generic as writer isn’t the most effective way to look for one’s dream job. I need a better strategy. So I dive into websites that showcase people doing interesting things with their lives, in fields that sound promising. After a couple of hours, I produce a list. It looks like this:

Categories of Interest

Social innovation, social entrepreneurship, human-centered design

Mentoring, coaching, facilitation, teaching

Leadership

Advocacy

Collaboration

Design Thinking

Governance

Impact Investing

Measurement & Evaluation

Organizational Development

Philanthropy & Funding

Scaling

Technology

These words appeared from searches stemming from the term global movement of change makers. That’s in my wheelhouse: global change, systems change, creating the new world that so many of us long for, and working towards making the dream of a sustainable, compassionate world into our global reality. The tricky part is, there’s no drop down menu of options that includes those words, sadly enough. The bots are artificially intelligent and can’t possibly understand a person like me who doesn’t fit into neat categories or even sectors. People like me have it harder than those graduates who have an easy answer to the question “what’s your degree in?” They can smile and say, “Bachelor of science in Computer Information Systems” or “Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice” and just about everyone immediately gets it. Business Administration majors are numerous, and so are jobs for them right out of school.

That’s not the case for us English majors and minors, however. People seem both intrigued and confused, or worse, slightly arrogant, once you confide that you hope to get a paid job as a writer. Their lips curl ever so slightly, their eyes glassy, and they’ll suddenly need to be somewhere else five minutes ago. What is it about the English language that so intimidates people? A lot of things, as it turns out. Take the average university English department, for example. Within that one department lurk scholars of many English stripes—literature, linguistics, composition and technical writing, creative writing, film and screenwriting, poetry, children’s literature and even graphic novel experts. Within those categories one can find even narrower fields of scholarship, like experts in medieval English manuscripts, 17th century Romantic poetry, or 20th century film noir genres. Specialization is the key to success in higher education. Where does that leave us multipotentialites?

In a world full of marketers, advertisers, techies, financial managers and engineers, it can feel like those of us who are passionate about using words creatively, with heart and soul, for the purpose of inspiring people to think about the world and what we are doing to it, are traveling a singularly lonely road. However, creative writers are a tenacious bunch. When you’ve got something that you feel is important to say, you can’t give up. You can’t let technology bots and content manipulators get you down. You just keep listening, and writing stuff down. The bus patron’s casual conversation with the bus driver on the commute home might just become your next blog post.