To #NaNoWriMo or Not to #NaNoWriMo

It’s been a couple of years since my first and only participation in National Novel Writing Month. Despite my reticence of previous years, I found it a great experience and I was very glad I tried it.

Last year this time, I thought I’d try it again, but the beginning of #NaNoWriMo happened while I was on a honeymoon. Who knew two people could sleep so much when relaxing on a boat!? Suffice to say, I was focused on other things and could never really get my mind on starting or continuing work on anything major last fall.

So here we are.

I think I’m in, but I’m not positive. In a few short weeks, I’ll be undergoing a surgical procedure. I’ve never been under general anesthesia. I’ve never even had a broken bone. I simply have no idea what to expect (and I do know anything is possible). For sure I’ll be completely out of commission for a few days, and then managing pain for an undetermined length of time after that. What effect will this have on my writing momentum? What about the fog of painkillers? What about the energy required for healing? It’s all a guess.

But as I type this, I feel a sense of rebellion against the “play it safe” stance I’d normally take. I don’t want to be deterred from starting, just because the finish looks so uncertain.

So that’s that.

I’m in for #NaNoWriMo this year. My month might be more like two weeks, but no matter what, starting is the first victory.

Are you in?

Nic and Blue on an excursion during our honeymoon cruise.
Me and Blue on an excursion during our honeymoon cruise.

Getting Free

It’s such an amazing feeling – freedom. Freedom from my own thoughts of limitation. Freedom from an old path. Freedom from what no longer serves me.

I’ve felt this freedom in recent days, swelling in a joyful crescendo this evening. To celebrate and reaffirm my recent decisions, I started tossing and recycling items long outdated. Tomorrow I get to cart them away.

There’s new space in my garage where anchors used to be. There’s new energy and mental clarity where there was once clutter and dread. It’s wonderful.

Embracing my true self.
Embracing my true self.

Even an individual at cross purposes with himself is certain to end in failure. Yet a hundred or even a thousand people can definitely attain their goal, if they are of one mind. ~Nichiren

Although many quote this passage from Many in Body, One in Mind to highlight the second half, I reference it most often for the first. More than once, I’ve found myself wavering about a decision. I have clear thoughts about where I want to go, but take steps at cross purposes with my own desires. It’s like stepping on the gas and the brake the at same time. You don’t go anywhere, and if you do, it’s a jerky, unpleasant experience.

It’s liberating to choose life over fear. Now it’s time to be who I’ve always said I wanted to be… 

Next steps

sesimbra sidewalk
Nic taking steps in Portugal.

I long held on to something that was once a good stepping stone and source of support but it turned into something… much less productive. After a couple of years it became a crutch. And over the past few months, and most clearly the past couple of days, I realized it was more like an anchor.

In Nichiren Buddhism, once you realize you’re in a less than ideal situation, you seek to understand your role in it. You take responsibility and try to transform it. Hendoku iyaku, or changing poison into medicine, is a powerful approach. But it doesn’t work if you try to transform the wrong thing. You can’t change other people. You can only change you.

I’ve felt stagnant and frustrated for quite some time, but ultimately, I was allowing an external situation to weigh me down. I was the one holding on, and in effect, creating my own stagnation. My outlook and resulting actions were the poison I needed to change.

And so, Thursday, I resolved to let go. And Friday, I started the wheels in motion. Today I am overjoyed, looking forward to next steps.

The Ethics of Jazz

When I talk about leading through art, one exemplar comes immediately to mind: Herbie Hancock. Many of a certain age are at least familiar with the jazz great, but may not realize the complex ways in which he weaves faith, daily life and art. To that end, I’d like to share the first in a set of his Norton lectures.

Harvard University declares an annual Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry. Poetry, in this case, is broadly imagined, and professors represent various of the fine arts. In 2014, Herbie Hancock became the first Black American to receive the honor, and he titled his lecture series the Ethics of Jazz. (It’s worth noting here, Toni Morrison is the 2016 Norton Professor and her lecture series opens March 2, 2016.)

Hancock’s opening lecture is titled the Wisdom of Miles Davis. He begins by introducing himself, first by familiar labels – musician, spouse, teacher and friend. But then he posits a question:

What is the single factor that connects all those aspects of me? It’s the fact that I’m a human being.

He goes on to explain that this, being human, is not a trivial matter. He encourages us to make the most of that human experience, and purposely seek a life of expansion rather than stagnation:

Most people define themselves by the one or possibly two things they excel at and are recognized for – perhaps a job or a hobby. There’s a tendency to live inside these self-made walls and not be open to the myriad opportunities that on the other side of the fortress…

To develop wisdom that will foster creativity in every aspect of life, it’s essential to entertain the idea of being open to possibilities. Second, explore how you perceive yourself, and recognize and investigate opportunities that lie outside of your comfort zone.

He continues, moving now to explain his choice of ethics as the foundation of the series. Ethics, he confirms,  is a system of morals:

The study of right and wrong. Good and bad. The wise and empathetic. How we use our power to protect the rights and self respect of all people. It’s how we behave in the world among society – our brothers and sisters. And the values we hold dear and enable us to collaborate and interact with curiosity, compassion and righteousness. Without a moral code, the world would be overflowing with selfishness, apathy, greed, cruelty, environmental problems, violence…

He slows down here to note the irony, and goes on to proclaim our planet is on a slippery slope. Despite this, most people, regardless of race, religion or creed, “want to create ethical societies.”

Over the course of his life, Hancock has connected the values inherent in jazz with his Buddhist faith. He promises to share the lessons he’s learned in this multi-decades long project through autobiographical accounts.

A couple of things to listen out for as you watch this first one:

  • Don’t play the butter notes.
  • Listen to what you can leave out.

What other lessons does he share? What will you apply in your daily life?

Lead Through Art

Before my blogging break, I had the wondrous opportunity to attend the Aspen Institute’s Seminar on Leadership, Values and the Good Society. I found the experience a rewarding, albeit challenging one. It stretched me well beyond my introverted comfort zone. (Read my series about it here).

The seminar was geared toward leaders, and I found myself uneasy that I was not a leader in the traditional sense. There was one professional artist – a novelist – in attendance, and she admitted she felt the same. It was something I pondered throughout the experience.

I tend to take labels, categories and rules quite literally. And although I sometimes bend or break or mold things to suit me, other times I allow myself to feel confined and constrained. Quite often, the more constrained I feel, the more likely it is I’ve built the prison myself. In other words, I’m free to be or express myself, but I impose the limitations. It’s a lifelong struggle. In some moments I am able to break through, but others find me longing for true freedom.

I’m working on it.

CCI10142015
Aspen Seminar Cohort

In that setting, I gave up a lot of my freedom and power to external circumstances. I had a sense this gathering was important, that I was somehow lucky to be there and although smart enough to understand the content, not really “qualified” in the technical sense. Classic impostor syndrome: What if they find out I don’t belong?

I know and understand many models of leadership, especially those on an intimate scale. Leadership in a classroom. In a family. In a situation. Still, in this group, I felt as if that wasn’t enough. That maybe, I wasn’t enough.

These were my internal demons. Lies. And yet there I was, chipping away at the lies each moment of the Seminar. Each session found me reframing my internal dialogue, encouraging myself to participate. Reminding myself I belonged. I was leading myself to Truth.

In the closing session on March 8, 2015, we were to handwrite a letter to ourselves, responding to the following questions:

  1. What take-aways do you want to remember?
  2. What commitments will you make to yourself?
  3. What personal goals/changes do you want to make?

The seminar organizers promised to mail those letters six months later, and I received mine right around Labor Day this year. I won’t share all the details, but I will share my closing determination:

Lead through art!

Looking back on the experience, I feel more confident of my ability to contribute in the future. To be myself. To realize that in a room of leaders with highly regarded and diverse experiences, I belong.

New Moon, New Start

It’s been a long time. I shouldn’t have left you…

Keep going if you know the words. Meanwhile, I’ll just bob my head and smile. It has been a while. And since I’ve last appeared in this space, I’ve been out and about in the world collecting experiences. My most recent one was a glorious trip to Sesimbra, Portugal with my cousins. I may write more about that later.

brown beauties in portugal
Brown beauties in Portugal.

Today I’m dusting off the blog to say hello. It’s fall in the western hemisphere and it’s a new moon. And y’all know I love a good reason any reason for a fresh start. After this hiatus, I’ve got a lot on my mind. Some of it I’ll share here, but other things I may share in two new spaces currently under development. Every few years I reimagine my online identities and now feels like a good time to allow some things to stand on their own.

We’ll see.

In the short term, I just wanted to tap the mic, say hello, and welcome you back to the studio. coco’s brewing…

The Aspen Seminar

I’ve had two firsts today.

I. I just arrived in Colorado for my first visit to the state. I’m here for The Aspen Seminar on Leadership, Values and the Good Society. Things get underway this evening and I plan to document my experiences while I’m here.

II. I ate something called elk chili. I’d probably have called it stew rather than chili, but the important part here is the elk. I wanted something warm and filling, and while I don’t eat very much red meat, I felt adventurous. I give it a thumbs up. I enjoyed my small bowl and I think I’ll be satisfied for the next couple of hours.

The view from my window. Initial descent into Aspen, Colorado.
The view from my window. Initial descent into Aspen, Colorado.

I’m looking forward the experience. There are 14 participants including me, and we have two facilitators.

We were assigned several readings, and we’re meeting together in Socratic seminar-styled discussions to reflect and make meaning from the texts.

We read everything from Aristotle’s Politics to the Declaration of Independence to King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail. 

Some of the readings stretched me a bit, and I had some fun talks with Blue about a few of them. I’m open to what is sure to be an interesting, enriching experience.


Read the next post in the Aspen Seminar series.

Goodbye 40. Hello 41.

On Mother’s Day I cried.

I felt anxious most of the day. Irritable. Off-kilter. But I wasn’t sure why. Late afternoon I sat with Blue and he held my hands until I could say. I truly didn’t know until the words flew out: “I’m not a mother.” I buried my face, hiding tears.

It felt strange to say. And really it was more that I felt in between. Displaced? Out of place? I dunno. I was coming to love his children, but who was I, really? Despite the growing relationship we all shared, there was no neat space for me. Not stepmom. Not stepmom-to-be. But there they were. And here I was. A lovely conundrum in the grand scheme of things, but one that confused my heart. Normally, I don’t look to commercial calendars for commentary on my life circumstances, but for once that Hallmark holiday hurt. The silence stung.

Blue reassured me with his warm brown eyes and a tight squeeze, but there wasn’t much he could say then. We were little more than two weeks away from his proposal and he didn’t give away his secret.

Harp Family  Unity CeremonyI learned a lot in that moment, and in many moments of my 40th year. The lessons I signed up to master this lifetime have seemed to spiral each decade, although teachers and learning environments change as I do. One of the ways I move forward is by looking back and noting the wisdom I’ve gathered thus far. What follows is an admittedly incomplete accounting of my most recent trip around the sun.

  • Life’s victories and joys ebb and flow, not unlike the ocean.
  • You can be happy and content without being giddy.
  • You never step in the same river twice. You may get another chance at {insert thing here} but everything about it is different the next time. Including you.
  • Sometimes you expect what never comes, and get what you weren’t expecting.
  • Titles really do mean something. Act accordingly.
  • Watching and listening are active tasks and are best done with your whole heart.
  • Those who truly know you, understand.
  • Praise and encouragement are loving and effective motivators.
  • You can’t force change, although with clarity and warm persistence, you can influence your environment.
  • Human relationships are complicated. The best ones teach you something about yourself.

Here’s to another trip around the sun…

On Reading and Pondering Deeply

Second Sokkai Gakkai president Josei Toda urged young people to read good books and to ponder things deeply. Even though Toda died in 1958, this advice is relevant today and is great encouragement for everyone. And, in fact, is a way to stay youthful despite your physical age.

What makes a book “good” to begin with? Is it informative? Inspirational? Energizing? Does it make you see things differently? Laugh? Perhaps good books do all of these things. Perhaps something else entirely.

books-158066_640A good book enriches me. It nourishes me in some way. A good books speaks to me, even if it’s a psychological thriller with a love story at its center.

A good book is not only worth reading, it is worth rereading. You come to it again to unlock new lessons, discover new images, uncover subtle nuances. It may touch you differently because of who you are this year, or what happened to you last season. Or because you’re finally ready to deal with that twenty-year old trauma. But sometimes you just want to check in on your favorite characters and reminisce about old times.

As for pondering deeply, many  refuse ponder at all, much less deeply. Social media platforms are filled with incoherent ramblings from knee-jerk reactions to hearsay. Some who claim to have researched a hot-button issue have limited their reading to the title of click-bait, which is designed to be sensational rather than informative.

Pondering is slow. Much slower than the skim-swipe-share culture of today. It requires one to engage with one’s brain and with a variety of ideas.

Pondering is dialogue, not declaration.

It is inquiry rather than assumption.

It is research and reflection, not regurgitation.

I wonder if in 2015 we can slow down, read good books and ponder things deeply. Let’s engage each other in conversations (on social media and in real life) grounded in wisdom, thoughtfulness, and respect for diverse views.

Free Your Mind Friday

“Why oh why must it be this way
Before you can read me you gotta
Learn how to see me, I said
Free your mind and the rest will follow”

This song is on repeat in my brain.

I can’t point to a reason why, but I’ve found myself thinking, saying and writing free your mind all this week. Maybe it’s because I’m reading Assata. Or because I’m being more intentional about nurturing my passion. Perhaps it’s a divine message requiring meditation and integration because I’ve spend too much time thinking inside the box.

Sometimes think boxes are okay. They’re predictable. Comfortable. You know the boundaries. You understand the rules. But I’ve always been a tad bit claustrophobic, and if we’re being honest, comfort doesn’t alway suit me. Thinking through new ideas, adopting new ways of being – these things are energizing and inspiring.

Freeing.

I’m releasing or refining habits and practices I’ve outgrown and adopting new ones. I’m continuing my daily writing through journals and morning pages, and trying out a new approach to storytelling. I abandoned plyometrics for the winter and tried a new combination of yoga and Pilates to challenge my body in new ways. These and other things I’m doing in an effort to truly build my temple, evolve, and be free.

My Whiskey, Wine & Moonshine co-hosts and I had an interesting conversation about self-checks and the power of habit. As we enter week 2 of 2015, what are some projects you’re embracing? What are you discarding? How do you know when it’s time to release and refresh?

Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.