Thursday, July 20, 2017

Rejection #8

Tonight I received the latest rejection.

It was a solid rejection letter--a keeper:

"Dear Julie Steele:

Thank you for sending your work to Narrative. We are always grateful for the opportunity to review new work, and we have given [your piece] close attention and careful consideration. We regret, however, that [it] does not meet our needs at this time. We hope that you will keep us in mind in the future.


The Editors"

I keep scanning my head, heart, and body for sensations. Do I need to cry? Do I feel disappointment? Am I discouraged?

It's the strangest thing. I am none of these things. Sure, I'm bummed that I'm out of the running for the $4,000 prize, but...that's not why I submitted it. I threw my work into the ring because it's a solid example of showing up, butt in chair, and doing the work. I feel relief that I don't have to wonder about this submission anymore.

It's the best thing I've written to date, but because of that, I know I've already won. There's more living and writing to do.

I have a lot of story ideas swirling this week--THAT's what has me feeling a little woozy. So today at lunch, I walked to my favorite nearby cozy, shady park, sat down on the grass, and worked on a messy first draft of a story idea that has captured my heart and imagination.

Another activity that helps ground me is to go through something old, decide what I need or can let go of and organize it. Tonight, I came home from work and went straight to the piles of papers documenting my writing life.

These projects always get messier before they get ordered. Photo evidence #1:

As I made my way through the "early work" (the college years are ESPECIALLY cringe-worthy given my broken heart at the time), I found this gem from 1985, photo evidence #2:

In the FIFTH GRADE, I wrote: "...I'll be out of college and be a writer or editor." 

Well, dang. More proof that Tammy was right. This writing seed has long been planted in me. I feel grateful every time I am reminded of it. It helps me stay the course. To remember that I'm writing because it's what brings me joy. It has the potential to encourage and help other people. These are the reasons I write toward rejection 9...152...300.

My writer's statement is:

     "To feast on words, explore their power and serve up writings      which inspire and encourage my readers and myself."

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A Longish Post about Leadership

Beginning in middle school, I found myself on the “leadership track.” If there was an event or workshop designed to build leadership skills, I was invited to participate. In the 80s and 90s, the leadership being emphasized was the kind that put the leader front and center. It would take awhile for me to experience the power and value of a quiet, steady, behind-the-scenes kind of leadership. And even longer for me to recognize that that was the kind of leadership that I embodied.

I remember a few coveted leadership opportunities being given to other people. At the time, I was disappointed and confused about being overlooked. Wasn't this what I'd been primed for? What was wrong with me? What could I have done better to achieve this role?

Now I see the value (and good fortune) in those perceived losses. So often we learn far more from the nos than from the yeses. What I now understand is that another narrative was being written, and it would take some time, life experience, and perspective for me to recognize and appreciate the other story.

I stood on the edge of the stage in my high school auditorium. I was small in the cavernous, ornate space. The other teenagers attending the auditions seated in velvet seats beyond the stage were acquaintances. I didn't know yet they would soon become good friends. I had never auditioned for a musical. I could carry a tune, but could the director hear my voice over my nerves? They took center stage as my voice quivered and registered low in volume.

Days later those same teens gathered around the orange stage door where the cast list was posted. I was in! I was a nameless member of the chorus. Play practices dominated my after school schedule, and I quickly realized this nameless role was perfect for me: I could sing, dance, and enjoy the camaraderie of my cast mates without the pressure of memorizing tons of dialogue. From my marked spot on stage, I saw how the dedication of the chorus formed the backbone of the whole production.
I noted the times when the members of the cast—basking in the glory of their leading roles—weren't prepared. They stumbled over their lines. They couldn't get the timing of their solos. They tripped over the choreography. They relied on their natural talent assuming it would take the place of hard work or repetition. The director scolded them for these lapses, scratching his balding head. Why does the chorus have the choreography down? Why can we run through their songs without interruption?
Arriving at practice prepared and taking my behind-the-action work seriously was a form of leadership.

I bundled up in head-to-boots winter wear intended to keep out the cold. Shoulders up to my ears, I stretched my mittened hands over the open fire burning in the metal drum. I was a junior in college, vice president of the group forming a campus chapter of Habitat 4 Humanity. On this frigid Iowa night in November weeks before finals, we abandoned our studies and recreated a homeless night in the cold. It was intended as a lesson in appreciation and a reminder of what Habitat 4 Humanity was working to eliminate. Toes tingled with penetrating cold. We snuggled close to friends inside the shelter of a cardboard box. Some slept, others merely rested. The discomfort was bearable since hot showers, clean clothes, and warm breakfasts would greet us with the morning sun.

From cardboard shelters on snowy ground to planning meetings in the warmth of a conference room, this service work engaged my head and heart. I was a motivated, vital member of the chapter. I had ideas and knew how to implement them beside the other board members. I found my groove; I was in a leadership position, but in a supporting role to the president.

My senior year I ascended to president of the chapter. I missed the members who had graduated. We were still an active group, but something felt different. I was overwhelmed by my role as president. I didn't feel as effective as I had the year before. It wasn't that I was incapable of leading or didn't want the responsibility. While no one suggested that I performed poorly, I knew I was far more effective in the support role than I was as the figurehead. It was a gut feeling. And it struck me as an important thing to take with me as I graduated.

This behind-the-scenes leadership has taken me into adulthood. My day job entails writing gift acknowledgments for medical school executives. I write the letters, and other people sign them. The only visible mark of my work is the lower case initials that follow the upper case initials at the bottom of each printed letter. But the powers-that-be trust my judgment and the power I wield with words. I am often consulted on how to approach the delicate nature of donor relations using well- crafted words.

In a politically charged environment, I am finding my footing as a novice activist. I am working to figure out how to best use my voice and my energy to advocate for those who are voiceless and for causes that honor all of humanity, not simply a segment of the privileged few. I often have found myself overwhelmed and disappointed that I am not doing more. As I navigate this uncharted territory, I am reminded that it takes all kinds of temperaments and personalities to achieve great things. And so, I return to my strengths: calm under pressure, quiet confidence, empathic awareness of the needs of people around me, solution oriented, and optimism. I live and lead from those places, and I am certain I can make a positive impact. 
I have been a witness to transformation in the lives of two little boys. My friends have devoted months to training, home preparation, and heart and soul exploration to become foster parents. Shortly after their credentials were finalized, two young brothers were placed in their care. When we first met these children, they were shy and scared. Under the loving, firm, and consistent parenting of my friends, these precious boys have blossomed. They smile often. Their eyes twinkle. They run straight into my arms and shout my name with each visit. 
I am certain that I could not do what my friends have done. Theirs is the front and center leadership that does not come natural to me. But I have also learned that foster parents need supportive safety nets and safe places to share and recharge from the intensity of the parenting and advocating they do on behalf of these children. I can be the soft place for this family to land by babysitting, active listening, and checking in via text. I can be a member of the village that supports these children, and I am proud to do it. 
This post has taken me months to write. I struggled with questions. By asserting that I'm a behind-the-scenes leader, was I selling myself short? Was I falling for a message spoon fed to women that promotes fading into the background?

I marinated in these questions waiting for answers, to better understand what I was working to articulate. I've given a lot of thought to who I have become in the past two years. I am a vastly different woman. I trust myself more than I ever have. I listen attentively to what guidance my gut offers when I ask her for clarity. This quote from Martha Beck appeared in my email in-box one day a few months ago. It comforted me and reinforced what I've been working out in this post.

We typically think of leadership as a “superior” dominating the behavior of an “inferior.” That is not the kind of leadership that will help the Team, or save the world. Part of the transformation of human consciousness is understanding that we can lead from any social or economic position, if we access our power to direct our own thinking, make our own choices, and respond to our own sense of right and wrong.” 

I better understand that I will continue to grow and evolve. Perhaps someday life will call me to things that today seem unlikely or impossible. But if that doesn't happen, I feel confident and competent to express myself and lead in the ways that I have cultivated since I was a child.
Among the many differences in me over the past two years is the fact that I now direct my own thinking, I make my own choices, and I respond to my own sense of right and wrong. I also trust myself and honor the spaces I am leaving behind, the new ones I am living into, and the liminal spaces in between. I have heard repeatedly as I blog about the hard places, as I check off items from my bucket list, and live into my new life that I inspire people. I am surprised by this every time I hear it, but I also understand. By living truthfully and openly, I create space for others to do the same for themselves on their own terms and timelines. 
It's appropriate that I end this leadership post with the words of one of the presidents whose biographies I have read. His words encourage me to continue accepting the quiet role of leadership that comes naturally to me.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”                                                                                    

                                                                                             - John Quincy Adams

Sunday, July 9, 2017

More than a Memoir

My to-be-read list is so long. It rarely decreases because I am continually adding new titles. Since I have taken a hiatus from the presidential biography project, I am making my way through my list. There are books that have been on it for YEARS. I can't remember when I added them or whose recommendations they were or which magazine highlighted them. So I've begun to capture all of that information in my Wunderlist app on my phone. The one bit of technology that suits me very well.

All of that to say, I finished Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking - A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya Von Bremzen yesterday. I know it's been on my reading list long before I captured titles on Wunderlist. I suspect this title was in a "you should read this" magazine highlight.

I wish I had captured this information because this is an entirely different kind of read than I would ordinarily be drawn to and I am curious how it wound up on the list. I am stalling with all of this context stuff because this book was so amazing, I do not know how to aptly review it.

I found two "proper" reviews that I will leave here and here. (There's a knack for writing's a skill on which I can improve.)

The rest of the post will be my impressions and experience of reading the book. That'll take the pressure off.

The memoir took some effort getting into because so little of the subject was familiar. The Russian names and vocabulary slowed me up. But the storytelling did the trick. There are no adequate superlatives to describe Von Bremzen's writing. It is masterful in its own right, but then to consider English is one of four she speaks and isn't her native tongue--well, it left me speechless. She also has an extensive vocabulary, one that sent me to the dictionary on my phone frequently. These qualities astounded me and kept me reading.

I also read the bulk of the book on the Fourth of July. It was the ideal holiday plan for this introvert. I didn't feel like making plans and I didn't have any parental responsibilities, so I spent the day reading a chapter and then changing out my laundry. Reading another chapter, and another household chore, etc. It was perfection. The caption on that day would read: Lesson in Appreciation. I may be dismayed by the political landscape we are in right now, but pales in comparison to the decades-long traumas the author, her family, and their countrymen and women endured. This I must remember as I continue to work toward being an informed and active citizen.

The subject matter is gripping and astounding to read by an American perspective. Von Bremzen's account of life within the U. S. S. R. goes beyond the news reports and b-roll I grew up seeing and hearing. What's extraordinary about this memoir is her ability to weave the Soviet story, its propaganda, and its collectivism shortages with her experience of food, which was mostly in short supply or in dripping, reeking states.

She is such a gifted writer and storyteller that I didn't feel like I was reading a textbook, but I was definitely being provided a comprehensive history of a people and their political experience over one hundred years.

Given my relationship with the narrative I long lived in the kitchen, I am intrigued that such a title would pique my interest, but it did. I love memoir as a genre particularly because it's the one I feel most comfortable writing. I have read a lot of memoirs. Von Bremzen's has immediately become one of my favorites. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

This book also raises the bar very high when it comes to writing my own memoirs. It will be hard to not compare my efforts with hers. I am grateful to have this title to mentor me as I tell my own stories.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Choosing Something Different than Anger

It takes longer to describe what happened than it did in real time.

I can't say my life flashed before me, but time did slow to a crawl.

Armed with an umbrella for a light shower, I set out for my daily walk at lunch time. My orange umbrella was in full bloom. It was working hard to ward off the wind made cooler by the random raindrops that were gently falling. 

I listened to the YoYo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone album. I caught my breath at a busy intersection at the top of a steep incline that lasts an entire city block. Since I listen to music as I walk, I am hyper vigilant about observing cross walks to avoid being "that" walker who misses some safety cue.

I looked up and saw the white pedestrian light illuminated. I looked once more before I stepped into the street. Without warning a car surged toward me and stopped with a lurch! I stopped and made I eye contact with the driver. She seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see her. She remained frozen. I looked back at the crosswalk to make sure I hadn't stepped out prematurely. The white pedestrian was still gleaming.

I took a hold of my umbrella with both hands and made my way across the street.

My brain buzzed with the replays. Did that really happen? Oh my word! I almost got hit by a car! How did she not SEE MY ORANGE UMBRELLA???

I kept walking.

And then another thought occurred to me.

I don't feel angry at the driver.

I feel compassion.

We all have had distracted, preoccupied moments behind the wheel.

It definitely wouldn't have been good for me physically had she hit me, but it wouldn't have been good for her either. That's where my compassion was aimed. When we made eye contact, she didn't gesture in anger or act like I'd been in her way. In the few seconds we locked eyes, she looked as shocked as I felt.

I texted my best friend and told her about the near miss. I also told her that I wasn't angry.

"You may be later. You're in shock right now."

I was pretty sure that the anger wasn't going to come, and I was right. I have thought about the experience a lot in the past 36 hours, but anger didn't surface. Relief, yes. Anger, nope. I'm working hard on being more compassionate. I've been meditating a lot on the words Jesus says about loving one's enemies and praying for them. It is so hard to do, and yet there's spiritual alchemy in the practice. It has a neutralizing effect.

I am not suggesting that there's not a place for anger in the menu of human emotions. But it does require a lot of energy to muster up anger and then even more to figure out how to resolve it. I am encouraged by yesterday's response.

For so many years, I walked around with unresolved anger and confusion. I didn't know how to process it, so it stayed stuck in my body and mind and heart. Without healthy ways to voice these things, they turned inward and weighed me down. I was plagued by depression and anxiety. It was all I knew, so I never foresaw a time when I wouldn't carry the weight.

With the help of a counselor and the love and cheerleading of an amazing tribe of friends, I have written my way through a lot of the muck. I feel lighter and freer than ever before. Now that I'm aware of my past modes of reaction, I am in a better position to CHOOSE differently.

I am grateful yesterday's crosswalk near-calamity turned out the way it did. I am grateful I didn't spend time in an ambulance or the ER. The moment gave me the opportunity to practice what I'm working on. I am incredibly happy to know that compassion was my default response.

This life thing is a series of practice sessions. Every time we're confronted with something new (or not) we get to choose how we're going to react. And the beautiful thing is that if we don't like how we responded, we'll get other opportunities to choose differently. Though I'm okay with not having a repeat of this particular encounter.