Trains, Bicycles, and Libraries

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Trains, Bicycles, and Libraries

I just returned from a three-week trip to Chicago where I was a scholar-in-residence at Skokie Public Library. I took the Empire Builder out and back, a three-day train ride each way. I brought my bike and cycled over 500 miles getting to and from Skokie each day. In addition to getting very tan and very opinionated about Chicago's car culture and bike infrastructure, I experienced an overwhelming sense of rightness and belonging. TL;DR I am filled to the brim. 

This trip was a windfall of riches in experience. Each interaction taught me something. Skokie librarians are downright amazing people. The library itself is full of heart, every ounce of it feels activated.  Together we imagined and practiced what a contemplative culture might look like. We meet, talked, and experimented. I am still feeling out the boundaries of my gratitude. They are far and wide. 

One interaction, in particular, a conversation with a retired Chicago cop who attended a program I ran on a Saturday morning is the inspiration for this post. She taught me many things that morning, and one of them was helping me realize the power of photography to reflect on and appreciate your life. These photos give in many ways. The process of taking them allowed me to slow down and appreciate the moment I captured. The revisiting and deciding which to share allowed me to remember and appreciate the experiences again and also in new ways. Captioning and sharing them with you connects us across time and space. And in the future, I will be glad to revisit these memories and experience all the emotions they rush in. 

THE TRAIN

Montana Sky Country

Montana Sky Country

I'd never gone on a multi-day train ride before and I loved it. It's a humane way to travel, one that nurtures a culture of trust. You're trusted as you board. There's no security theater. You trust others to not take your things when they're unattended. You trust each other to care for the common spaces (bathrooms, trash cans, aisles, etc.) while you're traveling together.

The sun rising near Devil's Lake, North Dakota.

The sun rising near Devil's Lake, North Dakota.

You're trusted to be nice to each other.  During meals, you're seated with whoever came right before or after you. I met such interesting people, all of whom were very different from me. I found common ground with each of them and will remember their faces and our conversations for a long time.

The sun setting in Whitefish, Montana

The sun setting in Whitefish, Montana

It's truly amazing (and also kind of wrong) that we can travel so far so quickly on planes. A train ride gives you a sense of the distance you're traveling. The time zone changes are gentle. You experience the gorgeous and the mundane of trackside towns and forests.

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

THE BICYCLE

There is probably nothing more evocative of my time on the trip than this photo.

There is probably nothing more evocative of my time on the trip than this photo.

In exchange for pet sitting a very sweet 19-year-old cat for a week, I had accommodations in Chicago, right downtown in Printer's Row, for my entire residency. This choice afforded me the opportunity to build a true friendship with the colleague that offered her home to me. I also made a couple friends in their tight-knit community. 

Pausing at one of my favorite spots along the lake shore. A bank of flowering Black-eyed Susans.

Pausing at one of my favorite spots along the lake shore. A bank of flowering Black-eyed Susans.

It also meant that I biked 20-miles one-way to and from Skokie each day. It was an interesting choice to make, but looking back on it, my time in the saddle was such a rich and alive part of the experience. I wouldn't have wanted it another way.

A perfect day, especially appreciated after a string of very wet rides.

A perfect day, especially appreciated after a string of very wet rides.

My first ride was during a thunderstorm that began at about 5:30 in the morning. It was torrential and I was soaked through after riding two solid hours in it. After that, I thought it could only get better but turns out another storm awaited the very next day. I experienced so many challenges along the lake front and the streets I found to Skokie (Ardmore, Kenmore, Granville, Lakewood, Pratt, Kedzie, McCormick, and Main). Menacing cars, impatient cyclists, oblivious rollerbladers. It was truly difficult each day in its own way. But, like my commute here at home, which is also two hours and involves 10 miles and a ferry ride, there's so much to be gained by accepting the challenges presented. It is a different experience to ride in the rain when you aren't upset that it's raining. In many ways, my ride afforded countless opportunities to practice acceptance.

THE LIBRARY

From the first minute to the very last of my time in Skokie, I felt something I rarely experience: belonging. Over the course of thirteen days, I participated in 51 engagements — "Mindful Meet-ups" with staff, departmental meetings, walk & talks with individuals, pop-up programming for the public, and more. I directly interacted with lots of folks — from over 70 Skokie staff members to nearly 20 leaders in other area libraries to ~40 members of the public.  It was a very full 13 days.

A goodbye gathering on my last day.

A goodbye gathering on my last day.

I left with more questions than I arrived with, which is just what a PhD student needs. Together we explored contemplative culture, programming, and spaces. There's so much to play with and learn about what's possible.

Drawing "internal weather reports" with Skokie patrons. (Photo by Max Herman)

Drawing "internal weather reports" with Skokie patrons. (Photo by Max Herman)

I think more than any other question, though, the one that's most on my heart and mind at the moment is about how contemplative practice creates and sustains community.  I am sure that wherever my work is leading, it will involve understanding how we bring our whole selves to everything we do, and how our whole selves are incomplete without understanding who were are together.  

A post-it note left by a member of the public. I couldn't have said it better myself.

A post-it note left by a member of the public. I couldn't have said it better myself.

So much gratitude for this experience. So much more to come.

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Get Freer with Freewriting

This quarter I've been exploring freewriting*. I've discovered Peter Elbow and Marion Milner and Pat Belanoff. I've introduced a freewriting activity into the undergraduate design thinking course I TA-ed for, I began a research project with Morning Pages writers, and I'm noodling on an idea for a collaborative freewriting tool that would help groups through stuck or stymied moments in their creative process. I've also played with my own freewriting, experimenting with new methods and tools.

FOR EXAMPLE, I'VE BEGUN TO FREEWRITE IN THE MIDDLE OF MY COMPOSITIONS BY PUTTING ON THE CAPS LOCK AND WRITING WHATEVER'S ON MY MIND FOR A LITTLE WHILE BEFORE GOING BACK TO 'REGULAR' WRITING MODE.

This morning, while reading Belanoff's Nothing Begins With N**, I stumbled on her list (p. 27-29) of ways to make your writing more "free," which in turn may make it more original, clarifying, cathartic, and (ironically) structured. Here are a few of her exercises (paraphrased by me) that I thought were especially easy to try:

  1. Write for longer and longer periods of time and more quickly. For example, set a timer, write, and then the next time you freewrite, set the timer for the same amount of time, but write more than you did the time before. Or set a word count and time how long it takes you and try to beat it the next time. As you go along with this practice, increase the timer or word count from time to time (ha!).
  2. Get everything out of your head and onto paper (or the screen) in 3 minutes. List making is fine for this activity.
  3. Freewrite about the process of freewriting instead of freewriting about whatever you're working on or through.
  4. Freewrite only questions. Ask every question you can think of.
  5. Freewrite for five minutes, then put that writing aside and rewrite what you just freewrote. Wait five minutes. Try to rewrite your freewriting once or twice more. Afterwards, look at the writings and compare them. Did your ideas evolve? What was consistent? What was lost?

More to come from me on freewriting and especially that Morning Pages study. Still figuring out what and how to blog my academic journey and this morning's reading struck me as simple and straightforward to share. If you have thoughts about freewriting, please tweet or email them to me.


* Here's a typical prompt for freewriting from Elbow: The idea is simply to write for ten minutes (later on, perhaps fifteen or twenty). Don't stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing. If you can't think of a word or a spelling, just use a squiggle or else write "I can't think what to say, I can't think what to say" as many times as you want; or repeat the last word you wrote over and over again; or anything else. The only requirement is that you never stop.

** I love the story of how this book was titled: A student who was being encouraged to freewrite said "I have nothing to say," to which the instructor replied, "Nothing begins with an N."

Now is a time for courage.

Now is a time for courage.

To people like me, average and privileged: Now is a time for courage. May this moment be like the hill I bike to get home — unforgiving and hard, but strength building and on the way to a better place. Give yourself time and space to digest this loss. Speak your truth to those you trust. Write, pray, cook, cry, smile at strangers, give and take hugs, be you. There is a role for you to play in whatever comes from this. Your job right now is to figure out what that is and have the courage to be it.

To those who may feel more threatened and marginalized than ever: Now is a time for courage. May this be the villain at the end of the story who is on his last breath. May you have the  strength to keep fighting and may you trust those of us who are ready to fight for you. Your wounds were centuries in the making and they will be centuries in the healing. I truly believe our lives are playing out on the healing part of that path. Raise your voices. We are listening and many of us are ready to do our part. You are not alone.

To people who supported Trump: Now is a time for courage. May you feel heard. May you rest in whatever relief this outcome gives and may you pay close attention to the unrest that exists within you as well.  May you have the courage to participate in righting whatever wrongs unfold from this. 

I’m pretty sure that everyone in America is feeling the same thing right now and that’s fear. We may be afraid for different reasons, but we are afraid all the same. May we be united instead by our courage. If there’s anything to truly fear it is that we won’t open our eyes and hearts in this moment. Fear is moving closer to truth. Fear is a prerequisite for courage. Now is a time for courage.

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Question: What is contemplation?

In an effort to share what's on my mind and also invite dialogue and collaboration* with others, I've decided to occasionally post illustrated questions to my Twitter account. 

I posted the first question "What is contemplation?" on July 20th with the following illustration:

To my delight, a new friend that I met at Sketching in Practice, Brad Ovenell-Carter, took some time to enter in dialogue with me by responding with this:

Brad asked, "Do we understand 'contemplation' better by taking it apart or by practicing it?" I suspect this is something that the people who already research mindfulness and contemplative practice grapple with all the time. I haven't even started yet and I am already torn between wanting to be rigorous and scientific and wanting to truly understand, which I recognize may end up being a personal journey. I hope both are possible. I tweeted back:

To which @braddo replied

Encouraging me to read "Meditation in a Toolshed" by C.S. Lewis, which I did and found inspiring. On his recommendation, I'd also read a post on Brainpickings about Alfred Kazin, whose journals I instantly downloaded to my iPad thanks to the wonders of having a university NetID. I tweeted back:

And found myself arriving at my next question, which I posted this morning: "What contemplative practices might inform my future research?" The twitter conversation for today's question is already unfolding to reveal new connections and ideas.

I'll be sure to chime back in with any insights I come to regarding experimenting with looking along and at my own practices and where they lead me. Feel free to pick up any of these threads and contribute your thoughts. You don't have to be as provocative or talented at drawing to be part of this discourse. 

And much gratitude to @braddo for extending my thinking here. There are fewer greater gifts. 


* I'm enabling comments on this post if you'd like to think together about this publicly. Of course, you can also email me or dm me on Twitter if you'd prefer to keep the conversation private.

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A Guide to the Personal Retreat

Recently, I led a staff retreat day for Literary Arts, a wonderful organization in Portland, OR. In preparation for the day, I created handouts for each of the activities I'd planned to do.

I snapped a photo during the Morning Pages workshop and posted it to Instagram. On a phone call later, my friend and colleague Sarah Lutman said she wished she could've been there. I mentioned that I had handouts from the day that I could send her and she was eager to receive them as she was already planning a personal retreat day and might use some of them as inspiration. In that moment the idea of converting those handouts into something any individual might use for his or her personal retreat was born.

I've since edited the handouts so that they apply to individuals and also added some instruction around planning for and filling a day of personal reflection. It is with gratitude to Literary Arts, Sarah Lutman, and each of the idea creators represented within (most especially the ones I know personally: Anton ZuikerDave Gray, and Nick Sousanis) that I present to you the first version of A Guide to the Personal Retreat. I hope and intend to update it with added suggestions and activities in the years to come.


A Guide to the Personal Retreat

This 12-page PDF guide contains advice and instruction for creating your own personal retreat. It will help you plan and structure a seven-hour day and fill it with reflective activities that I've vetted through my own personal retreat experiences.

Here's a list of the activities included in the guide, each linked directly to their original creators:


As requested in the guide, please send your questions or any stories (and images!) about your retreat to beck@becktench.com

Uncertainty

Some ideas for moving towards uncertainty:

LET GO of any fantasies of perfection you may be holding. Let go of the illusion that you can control what happens or that you can control what others think. Accept that you have less control than you think you have and less control than you wish you had. 

ALLOW yourself to go towards that which makes you uncomfortable, that which you don’t feel ready for, that which you don’t know how to do. Allow emotions that arise, even if they increase your discomfort and anxiety. 

TRUST that you are evolutionarily designed to adapt. Trust you already have what you need to handle pain, disappointment, embarrassment, and loss. Trust also, that others are made to adapt as well.

And, most importantly, PERSIST despite failure. Growth and learning are more often than not the direct result of simply continuing to try despite failing to succeed. 

Being with uncertainty is PRACTICE-BASED. It’s something you can try to be with in small ways that add up over time. Discomfort (from within) and resistance (from others) can be signs that you’re there. Do not be surprised if you find it to be both harder, and also more doable, than you thought possible.

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Practicing Sabbath

I began to get interested in the Sabbath last summer when a friend and I found ourselves walking around Vancouver one night after sundown. We'd sought after a somewhat faulty Evening Primrose Bush at dusk and were walking the long way home when she mentioned that that Sabbath ends when the first three stars can be seen in the night sky. Using the night sky as a time piece to set about or end a practice intrigued me, and when the opportunity to practice it came about a few months later, I was primed. 

That opportunity arrived in a book called Judaism's 10 Best Ideas, which I picked up at the library this winter. It suggested five "to do's" and five "not to do's" in observing the Sabbath in today's world. I've listed my slightly modified version of those suggestions below.

I've been practicing since the end of January, missing one week due to a trip (ironically, to visit the same friend in Vancouver!). I've found the practice thoroughly worthwhile. I look forward to it every week. It doesn't feel at all like following rules, but rather being gifted a reprieve from the demands of everyday life. I'm always a little sad when it ends and also comforted to know that nothing, except my lack of prioritization, will keep it from coming around next week. I've had experiences that would've never happened had I not allowed myself to be still, and my brain enjoys the break. I try to keep the Sabbath from Friday at sundown until Saturday at sundown, but some weekends I've made it Saturday sundown to Sunday sundown due to difficulties with scheduling. I'm okay with that flexibility, but I'm trying my best to not compromise on the full 24 hour commitment. 

I am not Jewish, but the book I read suggested that I didn't need to be, so I feel okay about it. YMMV

Five Do's

  1. Do commemorate and bless the Sabbath with candles at the beginning and end. Use candles that feel special and only use them for commemorating the beginning and end of the Sabbath period. I google "shabbat times Seattle" to know when to light them. 
  2. Do stay at home. As a general rule stay close to home (nature/neighborhood walks are okay IMO) and only leave when doing so would mean honoring another one of the Sabbath do's or don'ts, like...
  3. Do spend time with friends and family. Make an intentional effort to see friends and family. This also includes being extra neighborly, even if that means smiling or waving with intention to people as they drive by.
  4. Do read things that edify, challenge, or make you grow. Walk to the library (or your bookshelf if it's too far), pick any books that appeal to you (as I did when I found the book on Judaism in the first place), carry as many as you possibly can home, and leaf through (or dive into) them throughout the day.
  5. Do spend time alone.  Even in the company of others, use some time in the day to be by yourself, reflect on the previous week, and contemplate where you are in your life.

Five Don'ts

  1. Don't work. This includes reading books that seem interesting but are ultimately related to work, discussing work, and even thinking about working. Think of this rule as the one that lets your brain rest.
  2. Don't use screens. Power down laptops, iPhones, tablets, tvs and don't turn them back on until after Sabbath is over. This is a bit risky in that you may not be able to be contacted (I'm okay with that and it's a huge relief for my brain and attention muscles). Do what feels right for you.
  3. Don't consume packaged entertainment. Avoid movies, television, podcasts, and music. Spend time in the yard, play, create art, make up games, read, have conversations, meditate, cook, and/or simply sit and think to entertain yourself.
  4. Don't buy things. Don't spend any money on Sabbath. (I make two personal exceptions here: The first exception would be to give someone money if they desperately needed it (this hasn't happened to me yet). The second exception is to participate in the farmer's market. I thought significantly about this and came to the conclusion that the FM, which in my neighborhood falls on the Sabbath, is important enough to my life to make an exception. I've deemed it okay to spend money there as long as those transactions are treated in the spirit of community and relationship building.)
  5. Don't travel.  There will be times where this is unavoidable, but when it's not, travel only by foot.  Experience the world at walking pace, or even slower. 

BONUS DO

  1. Make your own list of guidelines for how you want to incorporate and honor a day of rest into your week.

BONUS Don't

  1. Don't be a perfectionist about any of these guidelines. If you mess up or end up, for example, talking about work for an hour before you realize it's probably not a Sabbath-sort of conversation, simply acknowledge that and move on. 

 

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Mindful Email

I'm currently reading David Levy's book, Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives, and doing the exercises recommended. The first exercise is called "Observing Email" and it instructs you to check email for a dedicated length of time (like 20 or 30 minutes), log observations you make, create personal guidelines from those observations, and then share what you learn, which is what I'm doing today.

Last week, I logged eight sessions across four days, which was over four hours of email time. I quite enjoyed logging my experience, especially during the first five sessions. I was less disciplined with ending my email checking in the last three sessions — I'd reach inbox zero and then keep email open instead of closing it and proceeding to another activity.

Here's a samplE of some of the observations I made:

  • Doing email feels like whack-a-mole.
  • Find myself in the middle of an urgent series of tasks: see something opportune, schedule it, inform the person of my commitment, repeat.
  • Feeling pressure to say yes to all the people that have requested my time.
  • When I dread the contents of an email, I want to postpone it/snooze it/do other things. 
  • I need a notepad beside me while I check email to write down things I need to remember so I stay in email.
  • Feeling trepidation at responding to one email and therefore the recipient knowing I'm available and needing to respond to their other emails. 
  • I am not at all paying attention to my body or posture.
  • Felt the desire to go to Facebook immediately after opening a message I was avoiding opening.

And here's a list of things I learned about myself:

  • I am in and out of my calendar a lot during email. It's hard to do email without it because many emails are about scheduling.
  • There are lots of things that can take me off task while in my inbox, especially newsletters and social updates that link to the internet.
  • Checking email can emotionally derail me.
  • Sometimes I dread email when the reality of my inbox is actually not dreadful.
  • I have a tendency to avoid emails that are long and complex and prefer to keep the ball in the air with shorter, more manageable email volleys.
  • Sometimes email involves using a number of different devices and websites.
  • Emails come in tides and waves. Sometimes they accumulate quickly, other times they seem to trickle in.
  • Email seems to be an emotionally "felt" experience for me, even though I have a hard time noticing my posture, breath, or physical senses. 

The exercise also instructs you to read over your observations and synthesize them into guidelines. For me, this was the most helpful part.

Here are the guidelines I came up with:

  1. My email craft* requires certain tools:
    • a good calendaring app that does not require me to exit email to schedule things
    • a notepad and pen for jotting down tasks so that I can stay in email instead of following up on every task right away
    • my mobile device handy for certain information needs (sometimes optional)
    • a mouse because I enjoy using one (sometimes optional)
  2. Email can be an emotionally volatile space. I must notice my emotional state before opening my inbox and agree to the likelihood it may be altered by what I find (otherwise, I should check email at a different time).
  3. To keep distractions at bay, I need to close my email once I've achieved inbox zero and re-open it with intention.
  4. When people or newsletters email me things I'd like to explore, make a note of it instead of exploring right away. Similarly, when people request I do something, it's okay to make a note to do it and then email them to say I'll get back to them later.
  5. Treat lengthy or complex emails (or emails I must write but don't exactly know how to) as I do anything else I'd typically avoid: get them out of the way first, using a pomodoro if necessary.

 

I found this exercise not only fun, but also enlightening. I recommend it and am already considering observing social media time using the same methods.


* A note about craft: Levy argues that we should consider our digital life a craft like we consider woodworking or playing a sport. That it requires practice, certain tools, and refinement. There's an entire chapter about this coming up, so I'll likely blog more about it later, but I love the idea.

 

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The Participant is Present

Marina Abramovic is exploring some interesting ways to get her audiences to digitally detox. 

  • She worked with Igor Levit, who performed the 86-minute long Goldberg's Variations uninterrupted and by memory, to an audience of prepared listeners. To prepare them, she offered lockers outside the music hall where they were instructed to put all devices and watches. Once in their seats, everyone was given noise cancelling headphones and instructed to sit quietly for 30 solid minutes before the performance began.
  • She ended this TED talk with a short "The Artist is Present" experience where she asked audience members to stare into one another's eyes for two minutes.
  • She's experimented with rice counting as a way to create presence and independence in individuals.
  • And she's envisioning a museum-like institute where people must sign an agreement promising to stay for six device-less hours without leaving. While there, she imagines people going through different chambers where they would (re?)learn how to walk, drink water, sit, stare at each other, and lie down. 

Thanks to Note to Self for pointing out this particular rabbit hole.

 

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Contemplative Arenas

I'm reading Thomas Merton's journals lately and telling everyone about them.

After one such telling, my friend Meredith pointed me to a novice monk that studied under Merton, James Finley. Finley wrote Merton's Palace of Nowhere, which is nowhere to be found in the libraries around me. My local library does have an audio book Finley created some years later, which isn't the same as the other even though it's titled similarly. In Thomas Merton's Path to the Palace of Nowhere Finley talks you through Merton's journals with a specific lens on how he lived a contemplative life and I've been enjoying it.

Key among my takeaways so far is a better understanding of what makes an experience contemplative. I use the phrase "contemplative practice" with increasing frequency lately and no one (including me) is exactly sure what I mean. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

Understanding it from Merton's point of view is a start, so here goes. According-to-what-Finley-learned-from-Merton, contemplative experiences are spontaneous, require trust that the experience is indeed real and revelatory, and tend to occur in the following situations, or arenas:

  • When you're in nature and connecting to a stillness or natural phenomena.
  • When you're truly connecting with another human.
  • When you're completely alone.
  • When you experience art (broadly defined).
  • When you're in meditation or prayer.
  • When you're viscerally aware of your own suffering (physical or mental).
  • When you're aware of healing from whatever you were suffering from.
  • When you're reflecting philosophically about something (like writing or daydreaming).

Finley has his own words for these arenas, "Experience of Nature, Human Intimacy, Solitude, Art, Prayer, Suffering, Healing, and Philosophical Reflection." Seems like a good start. It will be interesting to see how these Christian-based observations compare to other sources.

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Big news, everybody.

In October of 2014, I posted this image to Facebook and told everyone that I was leaving my job. I said, “I'm leaving because my gut says to leave and that's pretty much the only reason I have.” That was true then, and it’s true today as I write to tell you of another similarly gut-based decision.

Last summer, I experienced an “aha” moment, where I realized that much of what’s come before has positioned me well to do something I didn’t previously know was possible. I met a researcher who studies information and contemplation, and began discussing what it might look like to research that area myself. 

I talked with mentors, faculty, students, former students, and friends. I wrote reams on what I care about, where I’ve come from, and who I am. I began to make out a body of water—a field of research—into which I want to dive deep.

I applied to be a PhD student at the University of Washington, I moved out west, and I crossed my fingers. Last Thursday, I was notified that I’ve been accepted. 

I never expected to be an academic. I never knew studying something like “contemplative practice and information” was even possible. But I feel my whole life has led me to this opportunity and I plan to take outrageous and exquisite advantage of it. 

Classes begin in September. Until then I’ll be working work with some of my favorites, resting my brain a bit, and steadily continuing to build and refine my own set of contemplative practices to carry me through the harder parts of this new endeavor.

Thank you for those good vibes and prayers a few weeks ago, especially those of you who sent them without hesitation or knowledge of why I needed them. They mattered so much, as do each and every one of you.

How I Use TextExpander to Avoid Using the Words Should and Just

Don’t should on me, I won’t should on you, and most of all never should on yourself.
— Frances Ulman, PhD

I began using TextExpander, née Textpander, in 2006 because it helped me save time and reduce typos in my code. The software logs your keystrokes and when you type a certain combo of them — e.g. ddate — it automatically replaces it with something more meaningful, like the actual date — e.g. December 17, 2015.  You can set these replacements up to be simple, BEck automatically changing to Beck, or more complex, substituting dynamic info or even pasting the contents of your clipboard. 

I’ve used it all sorts of ways, but I’m writing this post to share with you the way I’ve found most beneficial: I use TextExpander as a method for questioning my use of words I’d rather avoid. Specifically, the words should and just.

I create snippet for the word I want to avoid — e.g. should — and I tell TextExpander to replace it with that word followed by a question mark — e.g. should?.

It’s easy enough to delete the ? if I want to use should, but it requires me to consider it first. After a while, I added a snippet for the word SHOULD in all caps, replacing it with should in lowercase for times when I’m sure I want to type it and don’t want to be bothered. The small step of holding down the shift key still requires me to be intentional about its use.

I added the word just recently, after a couple tweets I made in a moment of frustration with my use of the word seemed to have some resonance with my friends and followers.

This blog post isn't an endorsement of TextExpander, though I obviously like it and find it useful, but rather it is an exploration of ways we can use technology to help us become who we want to be. 

Some Thoughts on Measuring Online Engagement

Did you grab attention? Did you deliver delight? Did you cause people to want to share? Did you initiate a discussion? Did you cause people to take an action? Did your participation deliver economic value?
— Avinash Kaushik

The tricky thing about these metrics — conversation, amplification, applause, economic value — is that they may or may not reflect what we care about, which is change. It’s assumed that more conversation, more amplification, more applause, and more economic value == good. And that correlation == causation. We can assume neither, despite the digital reams of data that are available to us.

Online facilitation is like in person facilitation, especially if your intended outcome is change. Consider likes, favorites, follows, friends, comments, and shares like you consider test scores, which do not reveal much except for truncated measures of retention, attention, and recall. Clicks of mouse, taps of a finger. These touch points do not reveal the complexity of a human heart, mind, or identity.  Understanding how a person changes based on their interactions with us, how those interactions shape who they are and combine with their past and future experiences to produce change inside of them — healing, harm, openness, closedness — is probably impossible. 

Learning and change are super complex. Consider we may never know the effects of our work. Every snapshot lacks context in some way. Proceed with listening, kindness, observation, and experimentation. Accept that there will be uncertainty, as in all things, and move forward anyway.

Same, Same

I have never lived in a place as big as Seattle, where I encounter stranger after stranger, day after day, and could never not. 

But some of those strangers are magical.

The woman who rides the same bike I do, same color and with the same basket and even the same kind of bag in the basket, wearing the same t-shirt that Jen used to wear all the time until she lost it, locking her bike up across from me at the library on a Thursday afternoon.

The man who sits in the Olympic Sculpture Garden on a Saturday morning, writing in a notebook and staring at the water for a long time. I know it was a long time because I sat a ways down from him writing in my notebook and staring at the water for that whole time, too.

Or the day I left my apartment with an apple, which I ate while walking down the hill to Broadway, where I stood holding the apple’s core and waited patiently for the crosswalk signal. And the man on the opposite side of the street, who after also waiting patiently for the signal to change, crossed my path  holding the core of his own apple.

These moments are pure joy. I grin wide and breathe them in deep.   On a different day, in a different moment, we wouldn’t know each other at all. 

A List of Things That Improve

  • homes
  • energy efficiency
  • handwriting
  • the seasoning on a cast iron skillet
  • water quality
  • screen resolution
  • public transit
  • the time it takes to run a 5k
  • wifi bandwidth
  • medical treatments
  • interest rates

Noteworthy omissions:

  • self
  • humans
  • trees
  • flowers
  • ladybugs

My thanks to Frances Ulman, who taught me much of this over and over again.

How to Write Morning Pages

On October 20th, 2010 I started a practice of writing Morning Pages. It’s since become a space I use to reflect and find clarity, but taking an hour to write each morning hasn’t happened easily. It's required priority, boundary setting, and forgiveness. Here’s how I make it happen:

I Use Ritual

In her book, The Creative Habit (library), choreographer Twyla Tharp writes about how humans use ritual to understand things that are hard to understand — things like death, and God, and creativity. She recommends establishing a ritual to habitually put yourself in a creative space. 

Here’s Twyla’s morning ritual: 

She wakes at 5:30am, puts on gym clothes, hails a cab and goes to the gym. Notice that no part of Twyla’s ritual involves choreography. She has set up a series of minimally effortful actions that propel her into a groove as opposed to a rut. Twyla says her ritual is complete when she hails the cab. Hailing the cab is the point of no return for her creative process. If she gets that far, she’ll end up in the dance studio later in the day. 

My morning ritual looks like this:

I take two gummy vitamins, make an embarrassingly elaborate cup of coffee, and then number three pages: 1, 2, 3. My ritual is complete when I number the pages.  If I make it that far, I’ll propel myself into a groove and write. If I don’t, I’ll take my fancy cup of coffee and check Facebook.

I Use Envelopes

In The Artist's Way (library), Julia Cameron writes that you can throw your Morning Pages away after you're done, but I’ve never been able to do that. She says that the point of the activity is to exhaust the logic brain and parlay that state of mind into your next creative act. Morning Pages do that for me, but their content is too valuable to me to toss.

Still, it is easier to write honestly when your writing can’t be revisited.  To achieve this without throwing them away, I seal completed pages in an envelope.  There’s power in that thin strip of glue — it’s enough to keep me honest while writing and also prevents me or anyone else from revisiting. 

Anything Goes, Within Bounds

There isn’t a right way to write Morning Pages. Some days I draw symbols in between words, or do long division when I'm trying to figure something out, or repeat words or sentences when I can't think of anything else to write.

There is one wrong way to write them, though, and that’s to go beyond three pages. On days when three pages aren’t enough, I still stop when I’ve reached the back of page three. This keeps the scope of my practice nicely contained, which is especially important on days when the words don’t come easily.

I Write Them By Hand

I write with pen and paper and recommend everyone do the same. Handwriting matters (NYT) and it also slows us down, which is good because part of the benefit of writing pages is thinking about things at a contemplative pace.

Because handwriting is harder for those of us who type all day, I also use good tools like fancy stationary and an agreeable fountain pen. This adds a dignity and importance to the practice that influences how much I value it.

I Keep Trying

A month ago, I went through my collection of Morning Pages envelopes and counted them. I wrote 505 mornings out of the 1,561 since I started. That’s one out of every three, or a failure rate of 68%. Considering how often I fail to meet my goal, it would be understandable if I just gave up, but I haven't and I've written reams — over half a million words — as a result.

Failure and success aren't mutually exclusive. Don't let a single or double or triple failure stop you from the bigger goal. Practice is called practice for a reason.

Give It A Chance

Whether it's for personal or professional reasons, or both, Morning Pages are a great way to introduce reflection and self-awareness into your life. Imagining who I'd be without them is like imagining who I'd be without years of good therapy. Start a ritual, forgive yourself when you fail to meet it, and see where it takes you. 

A Flow Chart for Navigating Fear

The next time you notice you're afraid and aren't sure if it's an actual shark with teeth, maybe this flow chart can help you out.