Sunday, March 4, 2018

Dailiness: Showing Up for Yourself

Dailiness: The fact or condition of happening or being done on a daily basis. 
Also: the quality of being ordinary, routine, or mundane; everyday character; 
reliable regularity. 

                                                                              (Oxford University Press Dictionaries Online).

            When I was nine years old, I scissored open two brown paper bags from the corner Acme. I flattened and ironed out the creases, taped them together and cut-off extra areas to form a rectangle.  Facing the word Acme toward the wall, I taped the paper to the wall next to the bed where grandmother and I slept.  Using her yardstick and a black marker that made my face burn with its smell, I drew a grid of 10 rows and 30 or so columns.  In the left row of lines, I listed all the things I wanted to do or achieve daily—nine-year old things such as Practice Piano, Wash Dishes, Feed Bookie, Iron Blouse, Polish Shoes, and Brush Teeth. At the top of the columns I wrote the date. With my weekly dollar, I went to the stationery store down the block to buy gold and silver; red, blue, and green foil stars.  This was in the days before self-stick, when the surfaces of the stars were raised, as if carved, and the backs were gummed for licking.  Whenever I completed one of my tasks, I gave myself a star—the color indicating whether I did it perfectly (gold), well (silver)…all the way down to green for decent.  At night, I loved seeing the neatly spaced stars sparkle with the lights of passing cars, the bright moon, or the dawning sun. I felt happy with myself, whether or not my mother came home at night, or my father kept my stepmother from hitting me.

            But the tasks on my list were adult requirements, and I tired of the growing blank boxes on my chart, the stars more like haphazard constellations, more silver than gold, and then more green than blue.  What started out as a creative act of self-care turned into another chore that made me feel trapped.

            Decades later, I opened a blank Microsoft document, formatted for seven columns for the days of a week and fifteen or so rows. Instead of listing items driven by other-directed requirements, such as work, meetings, laundry, I list things to help me keep focused on what I value—such as 20 minutes of home yoga, meditation, singing, writing three pages in my journal (which I call “Musings”).  It’s too easy to get lost in the undertow of Email, internet distractions, Netflix—so I include reading poetry as an item, cardio exercise, writing something new, revising something old. Instead of checking Pinterest or Snapchat, I check my check list.  And it’s not an incidental to-do list that changes daily (although I do write those in at the bottom of my list for the next day).  This is a deeper commitment.

Every day is a work of art—how we begin and end it shapes the between which is life, itself.  So I list a modest “Make bed” as the first item: I start my day on a note of clarity, accomplishment, investment in tonight’s sleep. Others might write “Pray” or “Run” or “Eat breakfast.”  I was always lonely as a child, so evenings were painful—it’s when I became addicted to television.  I make sure now to write reminders to myself of what’s healthier in the evenings—writing a daily list of gratitudes, reading more poetry or prose, cleaning around the house, phoning a friend—taking care of those teeth.

I use my week-at-a-glance lists to monitor my current devotions—as for example tracking weight.  I add, subtract, revise items according to how I trend.  My lists tell me if I’m keeping up with things that matter to me.  If not, I rethink and recast my whats, hows, and whens. My check marks are like gold stars, but I practice flexibility.  I play games with myself when needed: “10 out of 15 was great for today!” “Superstar day of 14 of 15!” After all, my li­­­sts are about shaping my day as I wish and acknowledging my progress-not-perfection.

What we do every day—the no-big deal twenty minutes of yoga, for example—is what will turn into the biggest deals in our lives. Anthony Trollope wrote for only an hour a day before his job as a postal surveyor on the railroad, yet he created dozens of novels, articles, plays.  Dailiness is what matters—for the Olympic gymnast who wakes up every morning at 4:00 AM to practice three hours before school; for the mother who tends her baby through diapers, fears, and joys; for the student who spends an hour before classes to work on her papers and revisions; for the writer to write every day. As Yogi Pattabhi Jois said, “Practice, and all is coming.”

At age nine, my lists started in exuberance but devolved into a trap.  Some mistake living by the whim of the moment, uprootedness with freedom. But, as Robert Frost said, “Freedom is moving easy in harness.” Now my weekly lists liberate me from distractions, keep me focused on how I want to grow, and offer me an overview of where I started, where I’m going. 

Have I been “reliably regular”? Have I showed up for what matters?

How might you shape and reward yourself in your dailiness?

Sunday, February 25, 2018

"You're Not Confused!"

Image result for confusion 
     “I’m confused,” a student says to the teacher.  In his book Linguistic Communication and Speech Acts, Kent Bach writes: "almost any speech act is really the performance of several acts at once, distinguished by different aspects of the speaker's intention: there is the act of saying something, what one does in saying it, such as requesting or promising, and how one is trying to affect one's audience.”  “I’m confused,” is usually delivered, more or less, as whining on several musical notes: “I’m conf-you—oo—zd.”  First, the speech act is a complaint: “You confused me.” Second, because it is a passive construction—you did this to me—it asserts that the speaker is a victim:  “I’m helpless.”  It is fundamentally a relinquishing of power. “I’m confused” makes the teacher a perpetra (i)tor of the confusion, not sufficiently thinking it through for the student’s easy “getting.”  In all, it is often a passive-aggressive confrontation.  Since it is a blaming expression, working on the teacher’s guilt—it creates a sense of helplessness in the teacher, as well. Stalemate.

“I’m confused” implies do it for me—it is a demand. Birds, and apes, such as gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees premasticate—pre-chew and partially digest—food to kiss-feed their young.  Of course, it is the joy of teaching to predigest material for students—to provide focus, illustrations, experiences, inspiration, and tools to their students.  But, too often, in this world of pre-digested, immediately gratifying, spectator internet offerings, teachers are under pressure to spoon-feed do-it-all for students—mind read, thoroughly map the students’ thinking, and anticipate any concerns for the student. Hence the choruses of “I’m conf-you—oo—zd” ringing through classroom buildings.

To remove the blame/guilt speech act of “I’m confused,” and turn it to an opportunity for mutual discovery and invention, let’s unpack the word “confused,” itself.  The word “confuse” derives from earlier words meaning “to ruin,” “to mingle together,” and “to confound”—to intentionally perplex, defeat, or mix up.  Only in a horror film would a teacher intentionally perplex, defeat, mix up, confuse, or mingle together ideas so as to confound students.  And yet all those textures of meaning are embodied in “I’m confused.”

The other day, my class and I were looking at our Shakespeare Survey syllabus.  One of my students, I’ll call him “Peter,” said, “I’m confused” as to when papers were due. I felt that twinge in the chest that comes with the speech act implications of the expression.  What had happened was that I had made an error in identifying the dates of spring recess.  He was not confused, in the least.  He had thoughtfully caught an error, for which we were all grateful. 

How to circumvent this unfortunate, if only momentarily corrosive, clich├ęd expression between student and teacher?  Whenever a student sings out “I’m confused,” I say, “No. You’re not a victim, and I’m not a perpetra(i)tor.  What’s your question?”  My speech act implies “You are thinking for yourself.  Let’s have your insight.”  Peter asked the question, “When are our papers due?”  He pointed out that there was an error on the syllabus.  It was a moment of empowerment for us all.

            Whenever you feel the urge to say “I’m confused,” stop.  Activate your own mind. Ask yourself, “What is my question?”  Sorting out and specifically articulating what you know and need to know, will help both you and your teacher discover the wonder(ing) of your mind.

Image result for confusion question mark 
Work Cited

Bach, Kent.  Linguistic Communication and Speech Acts. Boston: MIT Press, 1979.