In Thought, In Hand, In Practice

I often think of journaling as a discipline.

 We often ascribe the term to some monastic population. In truth much of our lives are a discipline, but they come in three forms: in thought, in hand, in practice.

In thought is where most of our discipline lives. It is the end of a calendar year. Weight Watchers. Millions of people will start something in the new year. We mentally decide which things to change, which ways to do it and even how we will be after it.

A lot of my journals are “in thought” Thinking about the act of journaling or a topic or phrase. Some end up on the page some continue to float above my head and yet many others have blown away by the days and weeks of daily activity.

Discipline “in hand” is where we too often receive our satisfaction. Those new pair of running shoes, seeing that colleague or friend at the gym or the cashiers face as she rings up those healthy frozen dinners. I call this section: “in hand” because for me, it is holding the journal. Having the journal seen by others. I use composition notebooks. I like the price and simplicity. There are also journals at bookstores. The cute lettering on the outside. Is the lettering for the writer or the observer? Is it to say, “Why yes. I do write my thoughts?” I often wait for that question. I am too easily congratulated by myself and others. Because the road does not congratulate the runner nor the water the swimmer. The church pew doesn’t say “good job” when one’s hands are folded in reverence. A discipline in practice is often thankless, messy, lonely, frustrating yet fulfilling, completing, communal, and joyous. My journal sometimes sucks the ink out of my pen and then often the ink doesn’t want to stick. The problem is I don’t know if it will stick. It is not my job to know. My job is to be there and work. Knowing that evidently, it will stick. Basketball players know the only way to get out of shooting slump is to shot-not pass or rebound. There is a mindful forgetfulness. I can’t focus on what I don’t do- well or not at all. I commit to today’s work.

I call the last section “in practice” because in discipline there is no completion. There is practice and more practice. There is one way that you can practice: start. It is a simple act of will.

 

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Learning Notes and Scales

Lately I have been taking 30 minutes three times a week to transcribe my old journals. I just set the timer on my phone go at it. I put the journal against the screen. I do this for two reasons: 1) I see it better. 2) I can’t see the mistakes that i am making typing. My only concern is getting the hand written on the screen. What they become after that is undetermined. Transcribing can be more just a transfer of information. It was a powerful tool to become a better writer. It can teach the scribe the rhythms of a piece. Hunter S. Thompson typed The Great Gatsby just get a sense of a great novel. Transcribing slows us down enough to stop and notice what is being written. It can introduce us as scribe to new ways of saying something. It can also be a wonderful place to “jump off” into one’s own work (a la Finding Forester).  I believe that transcription is key to creativity.The key to transcription is the same as writing. Musicians don’t begin by composing music. They learn notes and scales first them play the works of others. It is only then they compose. As a writer, one should be writing the lines that they love and admire. This is a way to learn the way that words are linked. 

The Haunted Waters

Today continues my posting work from the past.This one is from July 2009.

Norman Maclean writes in A River Runs Through It that waters haunt him. I know waters haunt my father not by fright, but by longing. Of a father and three brothers now dead, of simple times, of emotions felt but not said, of the pride of not just the catch but also the time and of the river. For my dad water, yea, fishing is a pastoral exercise that cleanses his soul like the newly baptized. The sun in its setting glory silhouettes my Dad as he casts and reels, casts and reels off the dock at his house. My mom says some days he just grabs the reel even before he comes in the house. In his brown shoes and khakis, he stands. For this is not a moment of idleness and if he sits, he might miss what is in the wind, in the water, in his blood.

            The same cannot be said of me. I was too fidgety as a ten year to understand the mediation of the cast and reel. I enjoyed the strike and play with the fish. For some fishermen, the waiting is a means to an end. For me, none of it mattered. But for my father, the means was the end. He’s not a sport fisherman. He fishes small quiet lakes that old men haunt with their spirits hanging in the air and floating on the ripples. Places where dead trees make for good beds of birth in the Spring.

 

My Dad tried to pass this love of fishing to me. With the strength of one man, he would load me and the two man plastic johnboat we used, tempting me with cans of Orange Slice or knock off codas. We would travel through rolling farmland his beach ball blue Chevy S10 slowly taking each curve. The boat jutting out over the tailgate, looking as if it had dropped from the sky and landed in the bed of his truck.

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We would unload the boat into the water from the bank. My Dad would push off with a paddle and use the trolling motor to bring us to our spot. The Minnekota trolling motor only had fifteen horses of power, so even the getting to the fish was an exercise of patience. Before I long I would set my pole aside and fish through the ice for a drink or the singular candy bar. I grew tired of lines, tangled, caught and twisted or maybe I had lost my tenth worm to a fish smarter than me. My Dad was patient. He wasn’t here for the fish. My Dad was there for me, to share with me something few saw- himself. But the water was not in my blood. I would not let it drip into my veins like he had as a boy on the banks of Dugdemona.

My Dad still reminisces about the cokes and the worms, the tangled lines and the boy who couldn’t sit still. He still pats my back and says, “Remember that Memorial Day weekend when we caught over a hundred fish.” But my Dad never really talked when we were in the boat. He just sat and looked. He would move the boat away or closer to whatever dead tree the fish were bedded on, and every so often he would say something about fishing with his Dad. His words then seemed just words, but now seem like a man caught between the past and present. I would talk and talk in that green plastic johnboat, but my dad preferred the silence. Perhaps he heard too many voices already.

Stepping in Shallow Holes

I sat in the car waiting for the a/c to dispel the heat that had waited for me after class. More than the heat, I wanted my fears dispelled. I poured the green tea over the ice. I had found the bottle in the fridge this morning with a note: Some mint and honey for my honey and some Sweet Leaf for my “sweet tea.” Enjoy this on your way home- A little birthday treat! The smooth taste of honey and mint were enjoyable, but this birthday wasn’t.

It was my birthday and also the day of a big presentation. The presentation had gone well, but in my abundance of information, I hadn’t included enough meaningful writing. In breakdown of the presentation, the heads of the program told me that I was a great presenter but I also heard these words: “more intention,” “more focus,” “more direction,” “more writing,” And to top it off, I should watch out for errors in my handouts since they reflect on me as a writer. I felt embarrassed. Not because I had made the mistakes, but because I always make these mistakes. The presentation was me- full of passion and information, but unfocused or mis-focused and most of all, sprinkled with errors. I had stepped in the same holes as always. I felt plagued by my shortcomings. Yes, as I get older, the holes become shallower. Age and maturity shoveling hard-earned dirt into the craters of my youth, but the holes never go away. I wondered if we can change fundamentally or are just shiny, more well-adapted versions of ourselves?

Experts tell us that the energy that we devote to changing our flaws would better served enhancing our strengths. I needed answers from my past. I needed to see if I had changed. Flashback to February 1986. Dionne Warwick and friends had the number single, and Whitney Houston was a hot new singer with plenty of promise. I, on the other hand, was a nine-year-old fourth grader with problems.

The school had me tested and pronounced me weak in reading comprehension and math- so weak that I was sent to the resource room and given an IEP. They recommended that I be evaluated for ADD, yet my parents refused to put me on Ritalin. Other noted weaknesses were handwriting and spelling. My word attack was a first grade level. For those, like me, who think that word attack is getting in a fight with sentences, you are wrong. Word attack is the ability to decipher what letters and words say. But I had a seventh grade word comprehension level, three grades higher than average. I knew the word, but I just couldn’t say it. The tester noted poor levels of impulse control, coordination and reality contact.

My current body is a court-approved example of lack of impulse control, and I still often live in my own world. In addition, I still occasionally mispronounce words that I already know. My students are always amazed that I am an English teacher with poor handwriting who sometimes misspells words. The tester noted that I was physically restless and chewed my collar. Well my collars are now safe, but I can’t say the same for my fingernails or lower lip hair. The test also noted a tendency to give up on difficult tasks although she did say that I responded well to humor and to an unfamiliar adult. Saxophone, piano, and guitar lessons are further evidence to my lack of determination, and many a slumber party was spent in the kitchen with the parents.

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I was given the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test. As age nine, I had the vocabulary of a fifteen-year-old and a verbal IQ of 140. During the Wechsler Intelligence Scale, I scored a 16 on both the similarities and vocabulary sections, both in the superior range. But I scored a 7 on the digit span almost borderline, which is one group above defective (their word. not mine). Digit span is the short memory of numbers. Today I usually a small notebook in my shirt pocket. It is filled with lists. If I don’t write it down, it is gone.

There it is- a picture of nine-year-old Richard Long. Who am I kidding? There it is- a picture of thirty-three-old Richard Long. We all change. We are all miles from the child that we were, but like our shadows, the child is never far away from us. Christmases or family reunions, we all fall into place. Some adapt, and some don’t. I am okay with it. I’ll chalk this experience up to some hard-earned dirt that makes those holes a little shallower.

–          July 2009

The Sign Said “Don’t”

A few years ago, I attended a writing retreat in New Orleans. I spent the day roaming Uptown New Orleans with three other writers. This post comes from that time.

The sign on the piano just said “Don’t.” It was written on an order ticket. Use what you got. Les Bon Temps was thick with angst. Lots of tats, lots of hair (face and head). Not our vibe so we left. One of the patrons had a pit bull mix. Carolyn petted the animal to be friendly, a barrier breaker. The dog liked to be petted. I wonder if this is true of the patrons. Did they enjoy petting? Did their rough exterior exclude them from affection? No, each one may manifest violence or the appearance of it, but each one wants someone or something warm to lay by. The “don’t” on the piano is an almost a joke, but it isn’t. it is a growl to scare you away- away from harming it, bothering others with it. Then why not just take it out. Maybe on the right night with the right person, one who has earned the trust of patrons could play it. Maybe it was out of tune- too long since someone touched its keys. Maybe the piano is a family relic. They keep it there to remind them, but they must protect what is most dear to them- not the piano themselves. That gooey inside that no hard shell can toughen. The tenderest animals need the hardest shells. In the Gulf where I live, we consider it our pleasure to pull hard shells and enjoy the sweet tender flesh. Remove the scales to enjoy what it sought to protect. It is a dangerous world. We need protection even if it is just a sign that says “Don’t.”