It’s Always Too Soon

You may not like Andrew Cuomo. You may not believe the particular set of allegations lodged against him.

Hell, maybe you do believe them and hope they are true because you don’t like him that much…which is sick. So sick that it physically pained me to write that sentence. But I know that thinking is out there because I’ve seen it every day since these brave women began to tell their stories.

If proven true, these allegations mean that at least 7 women suffered trauma that will never leave them. And for many, it was repeated. Let the investigation bear that out.

But please, don’t joke about them. Someone you love is watching and listening.

Maybe it’s a friend or family member who has faced a similar situation…or one much worse, and has struggled with coming forward because they worry about how they will be treated. Your words and jokes are showing them.

Maybe it’s a child who will see or hear what you say and be led to believe that this alleged behavior and jokes about it are normal. Something to just live with. Something to do to others and something to just take quietly when it happens to you or someone you love. Your attitude is showing them.

Maybe it’s an aggressor who will see your jokes as an invitation to continue. Your jokes help them feel like this just isn’t a big deal. That it’s just how men are. They are a permission slip to continue.

Let’s stop acting like our words don’t matter.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t laugh and joke about things that are truly funny, but please know, sexual assault and harassment are NEVER funny, but when we laugh about it, we normalize it. What a terrible legacy to continue to pass on. It’s shameful. Disgusting. It’s always too soon.

The effects of sexual assault and harassment are long-lasting. They work through your body like a cancer. They eat you alive and convince you that you deserved it. That your struggle with it means that you’re just not tough enough to cope. That you should be strong enough to “just forget”.

You never “just forget.” That’s not how trauma works.

And when you do find a way through, it still often means that when others talk about it, you laugh with them. Because that’s what makes them comfortable. That’s what makes them feel better about not stepping up, not offering support, not believing you, or worse, believing you did something to deserve it. Their comfort is NOT more important than your feelings. If you’ve been here, please stop laughing with them.

I’ve done it. I will not do it any longer. I’ve laughed with others about an incident in my life. Every laugh feels like a jab to the gut, something you take just to prove you’re okay. It’s been about comfort for others, not healing for me. If they care about your healing, they’ll never expect you to laugh with them.

So, please stop with the Cuomo jokes. Please. Not only do they normalize this despicable behavior, they take survivors right back to the terror and judgment and shame they felt surrounding the incident that changed them.

And it does. It changes you. Forever.

And if it doesn’t, please know that that’s not strength. It’s luck. Remember that we all process our emotions and traumas differently. Give grace rather than making a joke or passing judgment.

I hope you never have to know what it means to be harassed or assaulted, to go, in a split second, from feeling like a human to becoming nothing more than an object. To fear retribution not just from your aggressor, but from people you thought would be in your corner. To know some think it’s funny that it happened to you.

And when victims of assault and harassment speak up, shut up. Listen. Let them speak and don’t tell them they should just get over it. And if you can’t help, help them find the help that you might not be able to offer.

What we say and do and send out into the world in moments like this one matters. Your words, your actions, and your attitude might be the difference between someone you love very much suffering in silence or using their voice, and having your support, in their journey to be free of their trauma.

Be a Beginner

Logging on today, I realized just how long it has been since I published my last post.

There are a million reasons why it’s been so long. Some good, some completely grounded in procrastination, some connected to the fact that December and January have been a struggle to find my voice, my words.

And it’s not like I haven’t been writing, I have. A ton. I write daily in the classroom with my students. I’m currently writing daily as part of Michelle Haseltine’s #100daysof notebooking community. I keep a sentence-a-day journal to make sure that there is never a day without a line.

But writing, just like life lately – life amid a raging pandemic, civil unrest, the question of whether we would have a peaceful transfer of power, and fear and outrage with how fear and outrage are being dealt with at every level – has not felt good. It has felt forced. Like I was just going through the motions.

None of this is really what I’m trying to write about here, though.

Today, I want to nudge you toward something that, if you’ve been feeling like I have, might help you escape all of it, even for short periods of time.

Find a way to be a beginner.

At anything.

In any way.

For me, though reading, writing, cooking, and baking are all activities, that historically, help me to relax and unwind. They weren’t cutting it when the world around me felt like it was on fire.

They were places where expectations were hiding. Where frustrations were playing out when I couldn’t get from Point A to Point B, even though I’m “good” at these things. Nothing sounded, connected, or tasted quite right.

Some of that, I think, was because I was on autopilot.

I was mailing it in.

I wasn’t present because I didn’t really need to be. Over the years I’ve developed muscle memory for these activities. Even when the idea or story or dish is different, the motions play out in much the same way every single time…and they let me stay deeply rooted to the dangerous country that can be my own mind.

I’ve developed the skills to make it “look good,” but truth be told, it wasn’t feeling good.

Enter a new hobby: watercolor painting.

I have never, in my life, considered myself an artist. I didn’t think I had it in me.

It started as a way to create a couple Christmas gifts for family members.

Then, a friend sent me a link to a company that posts free watercolor tutorials each week. I tried the first one, and I was hooked.

Not because I was good at it. I wasn’t. I’m not.

But for the first time in recent memory, being “good” at it didn’t matter to me.

It didn’t matter because being “good” at it was an unrealistic expectation. To date, I’ve only painted with watercolors 13 times.

Who the heck is good at anything after 13 times?

No one.

And I needed that.

I needed a space to grow, to try new things, to step completely out of the role of expert or teacher.

Painting has made me realize that in most of my life, even the non-school moments, I live in that zone. Living in that space for so many of my hours each day is not healthy.

It’s heavy.

There is so much pressure to be polished and get it right all of the time when you live in that expert zone. It’s not sustainable.

It’s not real.

Painting has reminded me why art exists, why the simple act of creating art (YES, even “bad” art) is something that has endured through all of human existence.

Yes, so much art is beautiful. But more than that, the process of creating art is beautiful. It’s meditative, it’s release, it’s escape.

And it is joy. Even when it is a struggle. Even when my painting doesn’t go quite as planned, each time I sit down, I’m doing something new. Until I started painting, I’m not sure I could even tell you the last time I actually did something completely new.

It breaks through my patterns and lets my whole soul take a deep breath.

I don’t watch the clock. I don’t pay attention to the news. I don’t pick up my phone and scroll through social media.

When I paint, I go somewhere else.

We all need escape, and until I started painting, I might have said that, but I’m almost positive that I wouldn’t have meant it…or maybe it’s that I wouldn’t have truly understood it.

But now, I get it. I am a beginner. I mess up. I try new techniques. My paintings are not polished. They are not professional. Each is an opportunity to learn and grow with zero expectations.

That can be both deeply fulfilling and immensely frustrating, but mostly, it feels like liberation.

When you break the chains of expectation, you set yourself free.

If you can find your way to that beginner space, it will change your approach to everything, even the stuff you’ve done forever. You will be more likely to try new things, give yourself grace, live in the messy middle, let go of the drive toward perfection.

You will finally see that allowing yourself to be a beginner might just be the breakthrough you didn’t know you needed.

Find something new. Give it a try. Be a beginner.

Gratitude & Growth

November started with my usual writing goal: to write daily to capture and savor gratitude. I’ve been doing this for a few years, usually with journaling or blog posts. Sometimes I get brave and write a free verse poem here and there, getting extra brave when I share it. While other years, I make a list – either throughout the month or on Thanksgiving day – of 30 things for which I am grateful.

I try to cultivate a regular gratitude practice throughout the year, knowing that it helps keep me focused on the ordinary good that surrounds me in extraordinary ways, but there’s something about this November project each year that feels special.

Maybe it’s because it is entirely focused on gratitude. I don’t stray into journaling or ranting when I’m doing my daily gratitude writing.

I also don’t let myself off the hook. Even if it’s 11:00 p.m. and I wake up (What can I say? I’m an early to bed type of human.) and realize I haven’t written about that day’s gratitude.

November has become the one month each year that reminds me that I can stay focused on a writing project, and that the experience can be one that is transformative.

During my month of gratitude, I always find reasons to be thankful, even if requires hours of examining my day for one tiny ray of light. But each year I’ve taken on an intentional gratitude writing project or practice, I’ve also learned about myself as a writer. I push myself and end each November changed.

This year, I chose to play a little. I chose a form I fell in love with in college as my way to express gratitude each day: haiku.

When I shared my idea with friends in my writing group, my friend Leigh Anne coined the term “gratiku” and, from there, a shared writing challenge was born. I think that’s part of what pushed me too…knowing that there would be others who might join, and because I felt some ownership of the idea, I felt a responsibility to lead.

And that scared me in ways I’ve never been scared as a writer.

You see, I’m a quiet writer. I slide into and out of my blog and post an entry with little to no pomp and circumstance. Sure, I post on my social media profiles to let my tens of followers know when I’ve posted something new, but beyond that, I keep it pretty quiet.

And I certainly never feel a responsibility to lead…not among adult writers.

That feels big. Scary.

The kind of thing someone with far more than tens of followers might undertake.

The kind of thing that November 2019 me never would have considered.

What’s different?

Community. Finding my people. Letting down my walls just enough to let others see my work and help me when I struggle.

And also…letting go.

If this was going to work, if I was going to share a piece of writing every single day for the entire month, I had to let go of the fear and worry and doubt that often paralyzes me and keeps me from sharing.

I had to let go of worrying about what others might think about my haiku skills (or lack thereof).

I had to let go of the push toward perfection and the fear that my words aren’t good enough – that they don’t deserve space.

And here’s the thing, it’s December 1st.

I’ve written 30 gratiku poems.

I’ve shared my work every single day, no matter how late or how messy.

I have thought more about syllable counts and word choice than ever before. I’ve learned about “cutting words” and zooming in to capture single, small moments.

Somewhere along the way I stopped fearing that my words weren’t enough.

And most important of all, I spent every single day focused on and looking for ways to celebrate gratitude.

2020 has taught us so much. It has challenged us and changed us in ways small and large, and in ways we never imagined. It has been brutal.

But November 2020? For me, it has been joy and beauty. Overcoming fear. Challenging boundaries. Finding new and unexpected ways to share my voice and my words.

I will be forever grateful.

Line Gathering: A Way I Feed my Writing Practice

One practice that sustains my writing life is something I call line gathering.

In my head and in my heart, line gathering feels a little like wandering through a meadow full of wildflowers and picking the ones that are the most beautiful. The ones that make me see myself or the world differently. The ones that I want to hold in my heart. The ones I want to share with others.

In reality, it begins with a book, a set of page flags, and a desire to let myself get lost in story…but not so lost that I don’t notice when the words are worth keeping. Nothing fancy. Just reading with attention and intention.

I know reader/writers who read with pen in hand and stop when they see a great line or beautiful combination of words. That’s not me. I don’t like to stop.

So, with book and page flags in hand, I embark. 

When I see a line that takes my breath away with its rhythm or beauty, I mark it.

When I see a line that makes me say, “Man, I wish I wrote that,” I mark it.

When I see a line that shakes my perspective and my balance, my thinking and my beliefs, I mark it.

When I see a line that whispers to my heart, I mark it.

When I see a line that SHOUTS, “LOOK HERE! THIS!” I mark it.

When I see a line that might empower and challenge my students as writers, yep, I think you can see where this is going, I mark it.

And when I’m done with the book, I set it aside. I let myself sit with the story. Consider. Wrestle. And often, move on to the next great book waiting in my never-ending stack of books to be read. 

Once a little time has passed, sometimes a day, others a week or two, I return. I open the book and my notebook. I grab markers, colored pencils, and my favorite felt tip pens. I try to draw the cover or play with the lettering of the title, and once I’m satisfied (or frustrated because what my eyes see and what happens on the page when I draw are never quite the same thing), the line gathering begins.

I revisit each of the flagged passages, doing so only when I have the time to move slowly and deliberately. I savor the words, consider why I flagged them, and how I might use those words in my life as a writer, in the classroom with my students, and often, both. I add them to the pages of my notebook.

Sometimes this sparks more drawing and other times I pause and write beside words to see where they take me.

It’s the bridge between my reading life and my writing life.  A way to notice and savor the words of others so that I can feed and nourish my work as a writer, as a teacher.

A look at my line gathering:

My invitation to you, teacher, writer, reader, (or all three!) is to embark on our own line gathering journey. Keep it simple. Grab a great book, a pack of page flags, and keep your notebook nearby. 

If you prefer to stop and jot or draw as you go, do that. Follow the path that feels best for you.

Find your own way to gather beautiful lines that engage, inspire, and empower you. Then, find ways to share them to engage, inspire, and empower your readers, writers, your own writing, or just hold them close and return to them when you want to savor and remember.

Resisting the Urge

When I began this project, I really hoped to post a new gratiku poem here daily, but like many of my high hopes in these strange times, it just hasn’t played out that way. The best laid plans and all…

Even though I’m not posting here daily, I am writing them. Every. Single. Day.

And I am loving the way this project is pushing me to both be creative and seek moments worth capturing in these word snapshots.

By nature and because of my profession, I am a planner, but I have resisted the urge to do that for this project. I wanted to do something that would push me to really BE in each moment, to focus on presence, to push myself to see the extraordinary in my ordinary days, to SEE things around me I don’t normally notice.

For me, planning would have kept me tethered to what I know and notice regularly.

Planning would have been (for me) safe, and everything I’m trying to do as a writer and a teacher of writers now is about encouraging and taking risks.

If I’m going to teach students that grit, grace, and mess can lead to magic, I have to be willing to model that.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m a woman who LOVES a plan. Plans have saved and helped anchor me more times than I can count. They have helped me navigate difficulty and persevere through hardship. Plans have their place.

But just as important as having a plan is being able to depart from the plan – to cut the cords that hold you in place when you’re ready to risk more, and maybe, allow yourself to fly.

It’s scary, this not planning, but it’s also invigorating. It’s the kind of risk I can take without much damage if I fall, flail, or fail.

It’s a small risk that feels like it’s leading to other, bigger ones.

Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but I do know this: I’m enjoying the journey.

I’m noticing more.

I’m breathing deeper.

I’m feeling deeply.

I’m more present than I’ve been in months.

Those feel like gifts that are worth the risk of resisting the urge to plan.

My recent #gratikus:

Day 6 #gratiku
Day 7 #gratiku
Day 8 #gratiku

#Gratiku Day 4

I wrote two gratiku poems today, and because they were both inspired by similar sights and sounds, I decided to share them both today, instead of holding one of them for another day (something I’ll probably regret on a day when the words don’t come easily).

After our first snow on Monday, it’s a beautifully warm and sunny November here in my corner of rural Western New York. I needed a day like this after the polarized roller coaster ride we’ve been on and are still riding.

It’s a reminder that we can get off the ride, and that when we do, there are sights, sounds, and sensations that can calm and heal us, even if only for a short time.

I am immensely grateful to live in a part of the world where autumn envelops us in her hug.

And with that, today’s #gratiku offerings:

cool autumn breezes
ebb and flow outside my door
an ocean of breath

bright autumn sun
reminds me that beauty warms
(a) balm for tired* souls

*The interwebs tells me that “tired” is one syllable, hence the (a) at the line’s beginning. That didn’t seem or feel right to me, so depending on how you read the word or your opinion of its syllabic structure, you can leave the (a) or let it go…isn’t that what autumn is about anyway, really?

We let go so we can rest, renew, and heal.

May you find all three in the coming days.

#Gratiku x 2

I’m not sure where yesterday went, but just before I shut down my devices for the evening, I remembered that I hadn’t yet written the day’s #gratiku.

I was snuggled up with a new book, warm blankets, and our baby beast of a boxer, Coco. Since she came into our world almost exactly two years ago, she has brought light, joy, sweetness, and silliness – more than any one family deserves, really.

Her best buddy is our old man Boston Terrier. She has a teddy bear face and the body of a baby walrus. When she runs, she does so with unadulterated joy and the floppiest ears and jowls I’ve ever seen.

She is magic.

Yesterday’s #gratiku is dedicated to our gigantic joy, Coco.

Coco the walrus
sweet, gigantic baby beast
gentle giant love

And now, today, on, quite possibly, the single most important election days in our lifetime, I’m thinking of how grateful I am to live in a country that allows its citizens to vote. A vote is an opportunity to use your voice. In some years it’s an endorsement, and others it’s a hope…a prayer, really, that change may come.

History has its eyes on us tonight.

I am grateful for and proud of every American who took the time to cast a vote. They may not all be like mine, but the overwhelming turnout numbers show me that we all understand the value of the vote.

May we remember it regardless of the outcome. It is my hope that this moment in our history reminds us all that every single voice matters.

Today’s #gratiku

I cast my vote and
hope that my little voice will
join others and make waves

Thirty Days of Gratitude…Haiku Style

Each year, I try to write daily to focus on gratitude during the month of November. Most years I create a list and add to it daily. One person, place, object, action, or memory for which I’m grateful.

Some years, I journal daily and tell a story or try to write a detailed, vivid description.

This November’s focus will be similar. I’ll write each day about a person, place, object, or moment. The format, however, will be different.

Each day I’m challenging myself to write a haiku to capture a snapshot of that day’s gratitude. Three lines, seventeen syllables, a moment frozen in time.

I’m not sure when or why I decided that this would be my path forward for the month.

Maybe it is my deep love for the quest for the perfect words, the perfect image.

Maybe I wanted to make sure my focus was intentional. Haiku is intentional. Capturing the perfect snapshot in seventeen syllables is deceptively hard. It takes focus. Discipline. An eye for detail.

Maybe I wanted to push myself. I’m not typically a fan of forms, rules, constraints.

Maybe I still hear the voices of my poetry professors from college, gifted readers who knew how to capture attention with poems and poets whose words would transform and transfix us.

Or maybe it was a need for structure and predictability in a world that seems to be offering neither right now.

I think it’s all of this and more. I think I landed in this place because it’s exactly where I need to be in my writing and in my life right now.

I’ll share my gratiku (gratitude + haiku, a term coined by my friend and fellow teacher-writer Leigh Anne Eck) daily here. If you’re inspired to join in, share your words in the comments or join a larger gratiku writing community and write with and learn from the writers in the Teach Write community on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook by using #gratiku to tag your posts.

Whether it’s daily, weekly, or just from time to time, take some time this November and capture and cultivate your own gratitude habit. I promise it’s worth your time.

Today’s #gratiku:

Sunday morning joy

hot tea, notebook, pen in hand

magic dances here.

Normalizing a Range

Blame is a really tricky thing because we look for reasons why or why not for nearly everything we think, see, or feel. Before we blame others for our reactions and emotions, it’s really important to look inward first and ask WHY we feel the way we do.

No one’s anything can make us feel something unless we give it permission to exist within us.

So maybe the better, deeper questions are: Why am I reacting this way? What am I avoiding? What might I need to deal with within myself?

I think it’s really important, especially in education, that we stop trying to legislate one another’s emotions and reactions, especially in these extraordinary times. We know toxic negativity exists, and so we also have to acknowledge that toxic positivity does as well. You can’t have one side of the coin without the other, and both sides are equally destructive.

We have to make space for a range of emotions.

A range of emotions IS normal. Critical questioning is normal, and, well…critical. Where would we be without the questioners?

Worry, fear, and doubt are normal. Heartbreak and hurt are normal. And among all those things, joy, celebration, and serenity are normal too.

We should not be pushing ourselves or expecting others to always and only see the bright side. That’s not authentic, and we could use a whole lot more authentic in this world. Even the most optimistic optimists have down days.

We have to normalize a range. We have to stop telling people that feeling deeply and expressing anything but joy makes them negative or toxic. We have to ask ourselves why we avoid hard topics and feelings and criticize others when they don’t.

I am an over thinker and an over apologizer. I am easily hurt by the words of others and I worry deeply about how I am perceived. But two things I am not: negative and toxic.

I feel deeply. I love diving into a lively debate. I am good at foreseeing and trying to solve potential problems. I am pragmatic and optimistic. In fact, I am far more optimistic than I am practical most of the time, which means that I end up having to find practical ways to do what is created while energized by optimism.

I like to confront tough topics, and I enjoy this complicated world. I’m terrible at the surface stuff. I am the most awkward small-talker you will ever meet. I don’t love big parties, and thrive in a small group where we can connect.

Not a single one of those things is negative. Complicated? Sure. Always fun for others? Probably not. And I’m very aware of that. I know when to disengage. I know when I need to reset, and I always do.

Not a single one of the things I’ve said about myself is negative, and yet, that’s the story some tell about me. Instead, they represent one person’s normal range of emotions.

They don’t tell a story that is abnormal. They don’t paint a picture that is negative. I’m confident enough in myself to know that, maybe, they make me complicated, but my complicated is okay. It’s normal too. We are all complicated.

And we have to stop trying to make ourselves small or different or more pleasant or palatable to fit in the box someone else wants us to live or fit in for their convenience. That box is theirs. It’s not ours. The story they tell is theirs. It is not our own unless we allow it to be.

We have to allow one another the space for our individual ranges. We are all experiencing this unprecedented time differently. There has to be space for all of us to feel all the feels. There also has to be space for those who don’t.

We are better, more beautiful, and ultimately more interesting when we embrace and normalize a range of human experiences.

Think of a rainbow. If rainbows were only red, they just wouldn’t be as interesting. They wouldn’t capture our imagination or attention as often. A red line in the sky might be cool, but a spectrum of color is what takes our breath away. That all of those colors can exist in one space without competing for attention or canceling one another out, now that’s magic.

I guess, what I’m really saying is we need to constantly create space for you to do you and me to do me and still find ways to be kind and compassionate even when your you is not my me.