Value-Added: Be Part of the Journey

When I began my professional career, I took a lot of pride in testing the limits of what I could do. I wanted to be the best reference librarian, the best teacher, the best administrator. I measured my value in exhaustive and exhausting projects and lists. The more accomplishments I could mark off the list, the more presentations I delivered, the more valuable I had become.

I felt a compulsive need to prove myself.

After a few years that wore thin. I still enjoyed turning in my best performance and getting big things done, but the satisfaction of each accomplishment was disproportionate to the amount of energy I was pouring in. I was getting tired, frustrated and more than a little bit bored.

And then something significant happened. I decided to focus less on what I could accomplish and more on what I could help other people accomplish. I discovered the joy of being part of excellent teams.

I lead a great team in my library. Every member of my team has a super power, though a few of them don’t quite realize it yet. The best part of my work is finding ways to help other people discover their super powers and ways to make those powers more useful. I also enjoy the challenge of finding ways to let their super powers increase my own.

Today my team said goodbye to Matthew Ownby. Matthew was offered an excellent opportunity with a major news company. It wasn’t a gift he sought. It was a gift that found him because he is excellent.

Matthew joined my team last September, which means he was with us about 9 months. In that time, he brought fresh perspective, aesthetic talent and good humor to projects we had already been doing. Matthew wasn’t always about doing new things. He was about doing useful things in a new way. He helped make us better.

And now that he’s left, people ask if I’m worried or scared to be back in the hunt so soon for a new team member. The truth of it is, I feel happy. I am proud of we did and excited to see what lies ahead for us all.

Too often, I think, organizations hire people on the belief that they need stability and some mythological thing called “long-term fit”, the person who is going to stay for 30 years. That is, I think, the wrong approach.

Better to hire the person who can move you forward, the person who can add value and help you become what you aren’t yet but need to be. Better to hire the person to whom you can add value as well, and then, when the time comes, part ways better off for the experience. Be it 9 months or 30 years, these are the people you need on your team.

I am grateful to have such people my teams, both in my library and in various projects outside. It is often humbling to find myself useful to excellent people. It is great fun to be part of their journey. Adding value and having value added — both are inspiration and a catalyst for the excellence I so often crave.


The True Work of Writing

Only now, I am beginning to recognize the true work of writing. It isn’t only the words. The words are the craft. The words are the practice. The words are the instrument.

The true work of writing is learning how to dream on command. It is finding that dark, vast ocean inside of you and tapping in so you can drink or drown at a moment’s notice.

The work of writing is meeting people who do not exist and learning to listen to their stories. You will know you are hearing them when you begin to fall in love. And they will follow you into your waking life, the non-dreaming part and they will begin to whisper at the most inconvenient times. And you will have a thousand other things you are meant to be doing. Things that are more important. Things that are more practical. But these people that you now love are speaking with such urgency. Their whispers so lovely, so personal.

And you will live a kind of divided life. A waking life of here and now; a writing life of lovely whispers. And you will carry forward in both worlds, often simultaneous. But your attention is not divided. You are not living two halves of two lives. Your whole life gets richer. You are living a two-fold life. You have made yourself bigger. The characters live in you and you live in them.


What to do while the world is breaking

This feeling you have that you went to bed last night and, when you woke up this morning, someone had broken the whole world and everything in it you thought you had understood.

Do not ignore this feeling. Do not shrug it off.

More likely the world has been breaking all along and you just have not been paying good attention. Look around.

The world, like the heart, is constantly breaking, spilling out its despairs, its loneliness and its fear. And yet there is, inside that soft container, so much joy and purpose and resolve.

You have to work with all of it. You must make yourself see all the pieces scattered around you, each of them out of its habitual place. You must consider each piece carefully and begin to move them around. You must begin to rebuild this world or someone else will rebuild it for you.

Your world is always breaking. That is its nature. This does not mean this is the end. We are constantly rebuilding, reshaping, and remaking. That is our nature.

Find someone you trust. Take stock of all the pieces. Get yourself to work.


I am not a ________.

Hi. This is Robert. I need for you to know that I am not a __________. I hope you aren’t too disappointed. I can see how you might have misread the situation. After all, we look kind of the same, you and I. We wear the same kinds of clothes. We binge watch the same shows on Netflix. We laugh at the same jokes. We chit chat about our families and our jobs and our vacation plans for next October.

We work together or we are neighbors or we went to the same school or we are complete strangers standing together in a grocery store line that is not moving. We look each other in the eye when speaking. We are polite. We seem to appreciate one another.

I guess I can see how you might feel mislead. I mean, I don’t smoke or drink to excess. I try not to swear in public. I am clean and well-groomed with no visible piercings. My hair runs a bit wild but it isn’t outlandish in style or color. I’ve never been arrested or been in a fight or even a strong argument.

I’m not telling you this to make you uncomfortable. I don’t want to punish you for misunderstanding who I am. I just need you to know that I am not a __________. I hope this doesn’t ruin your day. I hope we can still be friends.

I want to understand and respect you. I hope you will want to understand and respect me too.


A Writerly Person

My daughter is a writerly person. Which is to say, she has a facility with words. She can take several completely unrelated ideas and smash them together. She can take one really big idea and bust it up into tiny little pieces.

I love to see her at work. Sometimes organizing a movie script. Sometimes drawing out a comic book. Sometimes just sitting on the floor with her whiteboard and writing until she runs out of room. Then, erase and continue.

Tonight she was drafting her letter to the 4th grade teachers, explaining why, as a rising 4th grader, she would make a kick-ass safety patrol officer. Those are my words. Not hers.

Raising a writerly person is great fun. I get to see her worry over the proper word choice and puzzle over the clarity of this idea or that. She’s on a good track. I expect she will write her books before I do.

I am being careful not to praise her ability too greatly. People often make too much of talent. Fun to see her sit down and write a well-made paragraph easily and with joy. Better to see her save that draft, set it aside until tomorrow, reread, then change a few words. Kill a sentence or three. I encourage the writing but praise the rewriting. Better that she know now what it is taking me a lifetime to figure out. A thing isn’t written until it is completed, and a thing isn’t completed until it is rewritten.


The Long Walk Home (Flash Fiction)

Prompt: “Heart of my Own” by Basia Bulat

***

Its a long walk back to town. The moon is up. The trees are whispering tall and shuddering with secrets. Andie walks a strong, steady pace not quite a stride, not quite a jog. She doesn’t let herself panic, though the edge of it ices her heart.

She would curse him but she is trying to save her breath, to make it match her steps. It is a kind of meditation, lost in fury. The miles unreel behind her. This night has already been the longest night of her life and it will only be longer still as she walks the long, narrow country road, trying not to worry too much about the hundred or so horror movies she has seen featuring a woman just like her walking a trail just like this only to find herself sunk deep in perdition.

And bears. There could be bears. Andie keeps her eyes straight ahead, not letting herself notice how sinister and vague the world appears around her, rocks and fallen limbs wrapped in shadow and the frequent flash of eye shine staring back at her from the road just ahead.

She would be walking all night and, unless some car came and rescued her, any one step could be a fatal last step into the slavering jaws of a waiting wolf.

These thoughts fueled her stride. These thoughts and the impetus of fury that had pushed her out of Freddie’s car. Freddie with his sour breath and his too big hands that knew no boundaries.

It was no kind of date to drive deep into these woods, isolated and alone. He said he wanted to show her field where they could watch the meteors fall far from the neighborhood lights. She had wanted to believe him, but as soon as they pierced past the last of the streetlights, his hands had grown restless and friendly and deaf to her refusal. Kind at first and then insistent and then forceful.

What is it about men that keep their hands and lower parts separate from their minds?

The night air was cool and damp with the falling dew.

The moon is bright, silvering everything, but not quite full. No worries of werewolves this night. Make yourself grateful for few traveling mercies.

And the predatory hoot of owls in the distant trees. They are watching her. The entire forest is watching her. The woods have eyes and they are following her with voracious interest. If she stumbles, if she falls, they will press in around her and liberate the meat from her bones.

Andie keeps walking. She looks not to the right. She looks not to the left. She is only straight ahead and bent on reaching her destination and doing so in one piece. She wants to arrive without being eaten. The forest has a hundred hungry stomachs, each clutching and slavering at the scent of her passing. The forest is deep. The forest is dark. The forest has voracious appetites. Andie promises herself she will thwart those appetites and reach her destination having denied the night creatures their moon-salted meal.


I’m in therapy. You probably should be too.

Last week, a friend thanked me for sharing the fact that I see a therapist. He was very kind and very genuine. It was, he told me, a brave thing to share. He thanked me, he said, because he sees a therapist too and was glad not to need to be embarrassed or ashamed.

The funny part is that I never actually intended to share that. It was just a little fact that wandered into a post about self-help books.

Funnier still, I am the kind of person most people would not assume needs therapy. I am, in general, a happy, patient, even-keeled kind of person. The friend who thanked me is also a happy, patient, even-keeled kind of person. We aren’t the poster children for psychotherapy. Except that we are.

A few years ago, my life went haywire. My typical habits of coping and perspective-getting began to fail. I accidentally adopted new habits of thought that made my life more difficult, my thinking cloudy and my perspective short. I became anxious and needed help finding new, better habits of thought. I needed someone to let me work my way through knots of emotion that kept me caught in anxiety and dread.

It was the best decision I could have made for myself. I don’t lie on a couch. I don’t touch my inner child or talk very much about my mother. I just talk about the things that have me feeling stuck and listen when I need someone to point out when I’m being dramatic or silly or lazy. I am reminded to take responsibility for my own feelings and not to take so much responsibility for the feelings of others. I am reminded that life is growth and situations change and that worry and anxiety usually happen when I try to live too much in the past or too far in the future. I get reminded to be where I am and feel what I feel and do positive things to control the few things I can actually influence and let go of the rest.

I don’t know what my friend’s experience of therapy might be. I suspect he would say some of the same.

I want to thank my friend for being kind and generous and for taking the time to say thank you. He has me thinking about the merits of having a professional partner to help you keep your thoughts in order. Things are much better for me, but I’m not done yet. I still need the therapy. You probably do too.


Self-help: No shortcuts. No secret passwords.

Before I close the college library for the two-week Christmas holiday, I always grab a dozen or so books to be certain I have good things to read over the break. I’d like to tell you that my stack of holiday reads is a carefully thought out list. It isn’t. The stack is more of a smash-and-grab operation.

A week into my vacation I was surprised to notice that my stack had a dominant theme: cultivating habits of greater focus. A few of the books I randomly grabbed:

  • Getting to It! Accomplishing the Important, Handling the Urgent, and Removing the Unnecessary by Jones Loflin & Todd Musig (library near you)
  • Driven to Distraction at Work by Edward Hallowell (library near you)
  • Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchin Rubin (library near you)
  • The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (library near you)

I realized this a few moments are reading Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (library near you).

I won’t need my therapist to help me decipher what this means. I waste a lot of time worrying about prioritizing my time and whether or not I am well-focused on the most useful things. A related anxiety: many of the things I do in my daily life are done on a kind of autopilot without deep attention or thought.

Intrigued by this non-accidental accretion of books, I thumbed through several to get a sense of what I was up against. The first chapter of Getting to It! is an assault of questions:

  • “At any time of day, do you find yourself saying ‘When I get the time I will…’ or ‘One day when things are different…’ and then realizing how familiar that sounds? Do you reflect on the past five years and become frustrated..?”
  • “What if a high percentage of your tasks and actions were actually contributing to accomplishing those things that matter to you?”
  • “What if you felt you actually had time..?”
  • “What if you actually enjoyed…?”
  • “What if some of the chores on your list…?”
  • and on and on ad naseum

I put the book aside. The questions were annoying and the cadence familiar. It was the steady, rhythmic incantation of the infomercial man. Time management. Clearer priorities. A tidier, better organized life-space. Close cousins to Kaboom! Cleaner and Oxyclean laundry detergent.

I piled the self-help books together in a bag to take back to work. I’m all for a bit of ass-kicking inspiration now and then. Sometimes I need a quick recap of things I already know. But, for the most part, I already know what needs to be done. Less time thinking; more time doing. And reading about the thinking about the doing isn’t very helpful.

To paraphase the sage George Carlin: if you read a book that somebody else wrote about self-help, isn’t that just help?

So I begin my new year by setting the self-help books aside. I am one step closer to spending my time the way it actually needs to be spent.

Worry less. Do more.

Rinse. Repeat.


Grateful for Difficulty

This past year and the year before have been the most challenging years of my life. We continued to adjust to the loss of my mother-in-law. We did our best to help an angry, tired grandmother die comfortably and with as much dignity as possible. My considerate, sweet 8 year old daughter became an obstinate punk. My marriage wobbled under new stresses. I lost my way, for a time, both personally and professionally.

But here’s the thing. These past two years have also been the richest years of my life. Our losses are constant reminders of impermanence, a source of new urgency and clarity about things that actually matter.

My newly punkified 8 year old explores my patience daily and reminds me that respect in any relationship is earned through habits of sincerity and discipline. This isn’t only true between parents and children.

The challenges inside our marriage threw us both off our feet. We found a better way to stand together. At 41 years old, I fell in love again with the woman I have loved since I was 15 years old. I am learning there is no edge, no ceiling, no floor on how two people can commit and grow together. She is the best part of my life.

I am finding my way out of darkness and I am traveling lighter and with greater clarity of purpose. Instead of constantly taking things on, I am pairing things down. I am learning to set down the burdens that do not properly belong to me.

I used to believe a good life was crowded, exciting and easy. I am coming to know that the good life is simple, steady and full of difficulty.

And this is my new year wish for you: that your life be filled with difficulty, frustrations and obstacles. And that, in difficulty, you may find your better self. That your relationships grow sweeter and your days more urgent. Our time together here is very short. Every moment matters.


Apocalypse (Flash fiction?)

I wrote this thing. It scares me. You don’t need to read it. I just needed to post so it could think I wasn’t afraid.

***

I see you. Sitting there at your computer screen, waiting for something to happen. For something to occur.

You are terrified. This awful bath of feeling. All of the dread. All of the anxiety. All of the frustration. All of it bathing you, rending your nerves, bathing your best intentions.

I wonder. Can you see me staring back at you? Can you feel my breath on your face?

I am here, right with you. Think of me, if you can, as an angel of mercy. An angel of deliverance.

I bring release. I bring relief. I bring apocalypse.

Where have you gone? Was that too much?

Why does this word frighten you so much?

Would you rather the truth be more palatable? Would you prefer an easier term for it? Transformation? Change? Personal growth?

Pardon me, while I swallow down this little bit of puke. It is vile, a terrible thing to see.

There is so much waste. So much potential unspent.

You sit there in your chair, aching for something you cannot touch. You have built a throne from the unspent coin of your dreams.

You ache to be ferocious. You ache to share this devastating beauty.

It cannot last. It cannot last.

This voice. Its truth makes you frantic. It will steal your purpose and your poise. It will rob you of the thing you most need to do.

And the hurtful thing, the diabolical reality, is that every part of it is true. There is no escape but to swim through the hateful center of it.

Dark things. Dark things. Swallow them down. Digest them. Let them nourish your mind.

You will say I am a cruel keeper. That I bring darkness and decay.

But that is not the entire truth of it. It is only the part you have let yourself see.

This thing is true. I am darkness. I am decay. But stay a moment longer and you will see what your mind could not prepare you to see. I am the darkness after the decadence. I am the rot after disease.

And when, at last, you learn to recognize these feelings for what they are, only then can you become what you are meant to be. Lean forward. Recognize the truth of this and know the true meaning of apocalypse. I am not death. I am not the end.

I am an angel of mercy. I bring with me only truth. I bring deliverance. I have come to set you free.

I am apocalypse. The full eruption of your truest self.

Are you ready? Lean closer. Breathe deep. Pull it into you.

Now, clear your mind. Let everything that is not you float away. Everything that is left is you.

Does it surprise you?

Good.

Lean forward. A friendly kiss on your furrowed brow.

Now you can begin.


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