Friday, March 26, 2010


One of the things I learned very early in my teaching career is the word "no." As in ...

No late work.
No extra credit.
No, I will not be on line to answer the question you e-mailed me at 11:57 pm for an assignment due at midnight.
No, just because you have access to your on-line course 24 hours a day doesn't mean I am hanging out waiting for you to speak 24 hours a day.
No, I will not chair every committee on the planet.
No, I will not ...
No, I will not ...
No, I will not ...

At first, the word "no" feels hard. It is sharp. It has that solid consonant "n" sound. The "o" is long, and can be dragged out for emphasis. Expletives can be added for further spice. Euphemisms can be used, as in ... I'll do that for you when pigs fly through the window and turn themselves into bologna in my office.

At first, "no" feels mean. It feels unaccommodating. It feels unfriendly. "Yes" starts off so much softer. The "Y" has a tail. The "e" is a short "e" sound. The "s" ties the word together with sweet closure. Everyone likes you when you say "yes." When you say "no", you're a bitch. Or worse.

There are things we all have to do in our jobs that are just part of the job. We might say "no" if we could get away with it, but we can't, so we say "yes" and make the best of it. I'm not talking about saying "no" to everything just to be snarky. I'm talking about knowing yourself. Knowing your boundaries. And knowing what you're authentically feeling at the moment and taking steps to ensure that you support that feeling rather than ignore it.

A clear "no" makes room for an honest "yes."

As a teacher, it's very very easy to say "yes" to everything. There's no "no police" hanging out to make sure you're setting effective boundaries. Students, colleagues, and the administration will ask anything and everything of you. It's up to you to say "no." You've got to self-regulate. It usually takes a year or two of teaching before you figure out that saying "yes" to everything actually makes you insane and resentful, if it's not balanced with a nice dash of "no". What is in balance one semester may not be in balance the second semester. As you get to know yourself and your work habits better, you'll be better able to determine what structure you need to keep yourself healthy. This is my fifteenth year of teaching. "No" has become mandatory.

The last few weeks I've been talking with my division dean and other colleagues about feeling tapped out. It's almost April. We're all tapped out. No big news there. When I teach a class, I am 100% committed to that class and those students. I cannot do it any other way. It is, as I've said in other posts, a sacred act for me. When I feel I am not capable of giving it 100%, it is up to me to set a different boundary for awhile. It is up to me to self-regulate. To say, "yes", I know I have x,y,z contractual obligations which I fully intend to meet. But "no", I won't add a,b,c additional duties. How can we modify x,y,z contractual obligations in such a way as to ensure that I can still teach with 100% of me? How can we adjust scheduling in such a way so that what makes me a good teacher -- in no small part the fact that I am an active writer -- doesn't fall away and I become what I most fear -- a fraud. The writing teacher who has given up her writing because of the "job." The writing teacher who has become afraid of no income, and so has crammed every moment of her time with paying work so that she'll have enough. Only, (and I know this because I've messed it up before), when I do that I find I don't have enough. I have nothing.

I teach and write from the same place -- the very essence of my heart. I don't use my intellect nearly as much as I use my intuition in the classroom or on the page. I am an artist in and out of the classroom. There comes a time when the well has to be replenished.

If I teach my students nothing about writing at all, I hope I at least have taught them, and shown them through example, the importance of honoring their current feelings and needs. The importance of not pushing away what is popping up for attention. The respect for that small voice inside of them that knows when to say "no" and when to say "yes." Saying "no" often at first makes people angry. They can feel betrayed, or rejected, or embarrassed. You are not responsible for that reaction. You are responsible for your health and well-being. Create a structure that feeds you.

It takes self-respect and courage to say "no" -- to withdraw from activities for awhile so you can return to them with renewed passion and perspective. It takes courage to state what you are feeling honestly. But when you don't, those feelings will fester and resurface in far more aggressive ways. If you feel out of balance, state that. Honor that. Don't try to make it go away or ignore it or wish it away. Stay with that feeling. It will be different in a moment because everything is different in a moment. But if you haven't given that feeling voice, you're allowing it to claim a part of you. You'll find you're left with nothing.

"No" makes room for "yes." When you honor what you truly need, not what you "should" be doing, not what your boss wants you to be doing, not what your students want you to do, not what your long-dead whomever wants you to do, you're stepping up to your authentic self. You're claiming your power. You're moving into freedom by setting clear boundaries.

Your "no" allows you to fly. Use it. Dance with it. And as it surrounds you with the safety of the solid arms of its "n", your "yes" will not only rise up, it will soar with you.

"Yes" is clear and free because "no" is clear and solid.

Monday, March 22, 2010

It's a Mad, Mad World

I am on a road that I'm not sure I want to be on. I want to be the person who can pack everything into her hatchback, cats included, and ease on down the highway to someplace new. OK, I think I want to be that person, but I know I have a strong affinity for 500 thread count sheets and indoor plumbing, so unless that trust fund materializes around the next mountain, I'm not that person. But I can play a little Bob Dylan soundtrack in my head and pretend that I'm that camping-chick (OK, the camping chick at the Hilton). I root so well it's easy to get stuck.

I'm bored at work. I've built a program up here. It's a good program. The classes are good. All the instructors are good. The students are learning cool things. Their writing improves exponentially with each class. Their hearts open as they develop a deeper relationship with language. They make me smile.

But there's no where else for me to go, and the endless days of the same classes semester after semester are starting to take their toll on me. I'm two years away from a sabbatical. I'm moving to primarily on-line teaching in the fall to try and better utilize my time and try to get some of my creativity back. I've given everything I have to creating new classes, prepping new textbooks, and designing new assignments. I don't have anything left, and if I don't figure out how to put it back, I'm going to be a lousy teacher.  I'm not a lousy teacher. I think teaching is a sacred gift, so something's got to give.

I know this job is about as good as it gets, and I'm glad to have it. 500 thread count sheets aren't free, and I'm really not the person who's going to drive away with her cats in a car. But I'm thinking about it a lot, which tells me I need to try to figure out some other ways of doing things.

I think part of this springtime malaise is because I also feel creatively trapped. I am the only creative writer on a faculty of literature and composition teachers. We play well together, but we don't speak the same language. My tribe of writers has scattered to the four corners of the country. None of them are in Prescott. I am always the teacher, here, and that's unsustainable for me as an artist. Writing conferences don't come to Prescott. I've already been to grad school (could I possibly go again?) I could travel to some events, but they're usually in the middle of the semesters, when we're not allowed to travel. I've taken some online classes, which have been helpful, but don't cultivate the relationships I'm craving. I am on the way to becoming the teacher who writes instead of the writer who teaches, and I am absolutely not OK with that. I am supposed to be doing both. I am OK with that. But the pendulum has leaned far too much toward being a teacher in the past few years. In order to grow the program I've created here, writing took a back seat. It's tired of being the passenger.

I could go to Manhattan and sit in the subway tunnel and listen to Julliard trained musicians. I could go to San Francisco and watch the performance poets on the sidewalks. I feel pulled to wander, and with equal force, I feel rooted to a good, safe life here. This leaves me feeling like I'm going to be split in half. I told my friend on the phone yesterday, "I am artistically dying." It was so liberating to vocalize that at last. We had no brilliant solution, but at least it was out on the table.

I have two books coming out this year, and I asked myself in my journal yesterday, "Why is that not enough?" Why, in this world of publishing's collapse, is that not enough? And I came to the answer that the outcome, although cool, wasn't the reason for the writing. Publishing can't be the only outcome. It's too unpredictable. Too random. The two books coming out this year challenged me. One, though, is ten years old. It's been through many incarnations, but the puzzle of that novel is one I've lived with and worked with a long time. It's also complete. The challenge is over.

It's not enough because my writing is not as good as it can be. My stories aren't as complex as they can be. My sentences not as lyrical as they can be. It's not enough because I'm an artist, and a complacent artist isn't working in service to her art. It's not enough because I haven't stretched as far as I know I'm capable of stretching with my writing. I sit and stare at it and write the same old same old that works, but isn't pushing me. I don't know if I am capable of pushing myself. I know I'm capable of discipline and productivity. But I can only see what I can see. Everyone needs teachers to light up new avenues. Someone to say, "Yeah, that's good, but you can do better." Someone to say, "You've already written that story. Write something new. Start here." I give this to my students with every essay or story they turn in, but I seem woefully ineffective at giving it to myself.

So, OK, Universe:  

I am artistically dying. Help me out. Thanks, much.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010



There's water running through our town today. We've had so much rain and snow this winter that the creeks are not only full, but in motion. Water tumbles over river rock, splashing, even, along the banks. This may not seem like a lot if you're living in, say, Mississippi, but in the high desert, moving water is quite extraordinary. When I was considering moving to Prescott, I drove around town and stood beside the creeks and watched the water. In North Carolina, we had moving water all over the place. In Phoenix, water dried before it hit the ground. I couldn't live someplace with no water anymore. 

We've been in a drought for many years. The creeks have dried to sand. I'd walk over the creeks that used to bubble and see the rocks, the trash, the aluminum, that accumulated over the years of far less rainfall than we need. This winter, we've had water. The ground outside my house is still so saturated my feet sink into it. There are puddles and pools of standing water. And the creeks are talking, dancing, splashing through town, washing the detritus of the riverbeds away.

My husband's mother is cleaning out her house. She's going through her late husband's things and laying them out in the backyard for the family to pick through. Packs of golf balls. Weights. Camping equipment. Books. Score cards. Post cards. Photographs where no one can identify the people. She is clearing out a life that does not exist anymore. Perhaps she is trying to create meaning. Why did he save this piece of paper? What is the significance of that note? Why are there thirty pairs of socks? Questions she can't answer.

I come from a long, proud line of hoarders. My grandmother had boxes of clothes under the beds that had rotted with the tags on. Our dining room in my childhood home was devoted to my mother's stuff. Today, she has a dedicated room for boxes filled with ... stuff. Granted, she was recently audited by the IRS and she had all the documents she needed to prove she was right (go, Mom!) So, take that purging-people! :-) Perhaps you know the phrase, "You never know when you might need..." It's a default thought for me.

I love stuff. I love attaching meaning to things. I think about who has touched the things in my house. Where they came from. What their stories are. Objects speak to me. Lots of my stories come from objects. Things that we have a tendency toward easily become out of balance. What can give benefit can also be a problem. You may remember my Great Purge of '09. Bags upon bags upon bags upon bags of stuff. So, self, your tendency is? Yes! Acquire too much stuff. Antidote? Keep stuff moving through like water.

This spring break, I have gone back through my closets and taken four more bags to Goodwill. Yes, only four this time, compared to a number-that-shall-not-be-named last summer. I'm doing much better. These bags were stuffed with clothes that I should have purged last time but somehow thought I might still become the woman who could wear that dress, or that top, or those shoes. You know the woman. I bet you have one of your own in your brain. 

Do I need to put a post-it note in my closet? 

Laraine. My darling, 
You are not 5'9". You are not, nor will you ever be again, 125 pounds. 
You are not, nor will you ever be again, 25 years old.
You do not have long, thick, flowing hair (so stop buying the headbands!) 
You cannot pull off strapless. Ever. 
Long flowy skirts make you look shorter than you are. 
Stop the madness. 
V-necks work. Structured jackets work. Wide leg pants work. Knee-length skirts work. 
Layering is your friend. Shaped cardigans work. 
Funky scarves work (ha! The true one-size-fits-all item!) 
Laraine. My darling. Be real.
Love ya!

My husband's mother touches her husband's objects as she lets them go. They have stories for her. They have questions for her. I think of what people who clean out my life will find. What questions will they have? What stories? And I feel a responsibility to carry in my house, which is an extension of myself, only what is serving me now. Letting go of what used to serve me doesn't diminish what role those things have played in my life. Space, contrary to what I'd always believed, feels good.

I block my own flow. I create my own stagnation, stickiness, and mud. And so I am also the one who can move things through, keep the water moving, keep everything fluid and soft. 

This spring, with water once again gurgling through town, is the perfect time to practice movement, letting go, and making room.
Granite Creek, Prescott, AZ

Monday, March 8, 2010



I almost did it. I'm still not sure how I got so swept away, but I almost did it. Perhaps it was that sweet e-mail from Verizon telling me that my "new every two" time has arrived and I can upgrade my phone. Perhaps it was the visions of a life that somehow required 24/7 access, a portable GPS system, and the constant ability to use Facebook. I don't want that life, yet somehow I almost did it anyway.

I started researching Smartphones. After all, if you're going to upgrade, then you might as well upgrade. They do amazing things. Seductive things. Sexy things. They are a statement accessory. They're a power accessory. Oh, I can do this! Oh, I can find out the weather in Okinawa at the touch of a button! Oh, I can download my Excel spreadsheets (which I don't understand on a 25" monitor, much less a screen the size of my hand) and manipulate the document! Oh, I can speak to it! I can say, "flowers" and it'll google search for florists. (And just how often in the last year have I needed to do a google search for flowers? Zero.)

I did the math. A Blackberry Curve was going to be free with my "new every two" plan. I'd have to buy a data plan of course, which added $29.99 per month, but I thought I'd cancel my land line and end up ahead.

I went to my friendly neighborhood Verizon store. I thought I would give the money locally. Turned out, my friendly neighborhood Verizon store cannot offer the same deals can. In order to give them my money, it was going to cost me $200. $200 versus free. Makes it hard to do the right thing.

I was able to play with the Blackberry and the new Droid. I wanted to fall in love with them. I'd already decided I wanted this, so they already had me at "hello". But they lost me at funky-dysfunctional-counter-intuitive operating system. Blackberrys and Droids are palm devices. Palm devices are PC-compatible systems. I started researching issues between Blackberry and Droid and the Mac and found quite a number of problems. My Macs aren't going anywhere. They're like the cats. They come with me everywhere.

(Digression: APPLE: Please! Release the iphone on Verizon. AT & T doesn't work well in Prescott!)

But OK, new diversion! I want an iphone because they're adorable. And I understand how to use them. And they're adorable. Did I mention they're adorable? My whole universe is Mac-based. Every time I've cheated on Mac, I've ended up having to buy a Mac anyway and wasting the money on the PC that never does what it's supposed to do and makes my head hurt.

But OK, really, I don't need an iphone either. (Maybe I need an ipad, or an ipod touch? Please? Don't I?) I drive a mile to work each way. I talk on the phone regularly to three people. I already have internet access 24 hours a day at home. And yes, at work. I don't travel much for my work. I live in a town with six primary streets. You just can't get too lost here. As much as I might like to believe I'm living in Hayes Valley in San Francisco, or in Manhattan or Brooklyn, I'm just not. I don't need constant access to the train schedules. I don't need to tweet anyone. I don't even need to text anyone.

The woman who owns my friendly neighborhood Verizon store was going to give me a deal. She still couldn't do free (who can?). I liked her. She let me play with the phones. She gave me a lot of information. But I couldn't do it. Not that I couldn't buy from her. I couldn't buy it at all. I watched myself getting ga-ga with all they could do. Then I watched the tightness in my chest over all they could do. I watched the distraction-quotient in my life suddenly escalate a thousand-fold. If I had this thing, I'd feel like I needed to use this thing.

And I don't need it.

I don't like talking on cell phones. I like land lines better. I don't like having to charge something all the time. I don't like being available all the time.

And I don't need it.

I am not the CEO of anything. I don't have kids who need to find me. Last time I checked, the cats are pretty indifferent to whether I am there or not. They certainly won't try to text me, or Skype me, or even friend me. I rarely take pictures and I'm not a designer.

I felt the glaze-over start. The siren-call of the new gadget. The potential of it. The status of it. The whisper of all it could do to help my life run smoother.

I don't need it. My life runs about as smooth as anyone can ever hope for. I don't need it.

As I left the cell phone store, I felt like I was stepping out of a tar pit.

They almost got me! Damn! How did that happen?

They almost got me. But they didn't.