Monday, March 30, 2015

A Finish Line

In the last week, while undertaking a Master’s program in History I have realized some truths about myself.  In this case, some truths take precedence over others, but here’s what I understand.
First, I’m smart, but there are a lot of people who are smarter than me.  I think many of them are in the program with me.  I mentioned in my last blog how reading the online posts from my classmates made me feel outclassed.  I wondered if I had done the right thing by getting into the program.  Like many people I was given (and, worse, believed) message after message about how I was not as smart and not as capable as those around me. 
However, there is a greater truth: lack of experience is often mistaken for lack of intelligence.
In the 1980’s there was a game called Trivial Pursuit.  Generally the winners of this game were people who had read more (an ability anyone can cultivate) or people who were older and simply knew more through being around longer.  The game was about the pursuit of the trivial.  It didn’t require a higher IQ, just a little more reading (or some accidental exposure to facts) and a few more years of life.  Each of my colleagues brings different experiences and that makes them good at what they do.  My experiences make me good at what I do, too.
With regard to my colleagues, I have no doubt that some are smarter than me, and maybe some aren’t, and maybe some are just as smart as me. Obviously I’m intelligent or I wouldn’t have been accepted into the program at all. But here’s the thing:  it’s not intelligence that will help me reach my goal; it’s determination.
Here’s another truth:  determination comes at more than one level.  Obviously the determination to finish the program is needed.  But so is the determination to finish the homework each week.    So is the determination to do the necessary readings.  So is the determination to stay focused.  That’s my biggest struggle – staying focused, sometimes from moment to moment.  Maybe I need meds.  Or maybe I need to learn specific strategies to stay focused.  Or maybe I need to accept who I am and work with it.  What I realize is that we all have obstacles.  Every one of the students in the program is struggling with something that makes this program more difficult.  Steven Pressfield said, “Here’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t:  the hard part isn’t doing the writing.  The hard part is sitting down to do the writing.”  It’s the same for students.  The work itself is challenging.  But it’s not as challenging as getting to the work, getting past the fear, past the distractions, and embracing the commitment to put aside everything else and sit with my Muse and work.

Yesterday I finished a huge project and submitted it.  There’s a (good) chance the professor will send it back for revisions.  I don’t care.  I got it done.  If I have to fix it, I’ll fix it.  If I don’t, then I will have a very happy moment.  Either way it will be done, now or later.  But when I finished it, I felt like celebrating.  I anticipate many celebrations like that in the next 17 months and one week.  There will be many times when I can say, “I did it!  I finished it!  I slayed the dragon!  I was able to Get Started and Keep Going…all the way to a finish line!”

Friday, March 20, 2015

80 Hours

I just had the craziest idea:  what if, in the next two weeks I committed to studying for 80 hours?  How would this be possible?  It’s possible because, as my Muse said, I have the best job in the world.  I have the next two weeks off.  If I committed 8 hours a day, weekdays only, as if it were an actual job, I could do this easily.  Of course, experience has taught me that I shouldn’t wait until Monday (it’s Friday now), but that I should get started right away in case (when) an interruption arises.  Not counting tonight, I have 16 days until I return to work.  If I worked every day, I’d only have to work five hours a day, not eight.  Of course, rather than break down like that, it’s best just to set the larger goal (80 hours) and work as quickly and as well as I can.    Here’s another way to look at it, 16x24=384.  That’s 384 hours in the next two weeks, not including tonight (also not including anything else like sleep).  If I focused, would it really be inconceivable to work for 80 of those hours towards my dream?
This idea comes at a good time because, really, the only things I want to do now and for the next two weeks is be with my Muse as I read, write, and study.  I need her inspiration and encouragement every day.  I can’t do this alone.  In regards to the Master’s degree program that I enrolled in, I realize I have enlisted in a serious undertaking.  It’s real and I’m not a child or an adolescent who needs his hand held by anyone but his Muse.   It’s real and it’s huge.  I have more work ahead of me than I’ve ever had in my life and I’m scared and excited at the same time.  I was going to use the word “terrified,” but I’m not terrified.  In fact, when I think about it, I’m not even really scared.  But I was for a while. 
When I first looked at the amount of work involved and when I took measure of my online colleagues, I felt overwhelmed and outclassed.  At one point about a week ago I seriously considered calling the school and withdrawing.  Then a couple of nights later I had a dream in which my professor told me I was failing so badly that I wasn’t getting an “F,” but an “N.”  (I know there’s no such grade, but that’s how badly I was doing.)  Fortunately, I was able to talk to my professor that day (a productive and encouraging conversation!) and I’m not failing.  Besides, it’s only the second week.  But here’s the thing:  this will not be easy.  I’m trying to earn a Master’s degree in American history (just writing those words makes me happy) and it’s just going to be hard.
M. Scott Peck starts The Road Less Traveled by saying:
Life is difficult.
This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.  It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.  Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult.  Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

I hope these ideas, attributed to and borrowed from Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, apply to a Master’s program.
That last sentence was written with a smile.  It may be possible to transcend the difficulty, but it won’t be possible to transcend the work.   If I want a Master’s degree in American history (again written with a smile and great excitement), I have to do the work.  I’ve been fortifying myself by listening to The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.  I’ve read it and referred to it many times, but only recently did I think about the title – The – WAR – of – Art.  I’m in a war.  I’m fighting the internal Enemy and all that it throws at me.  I’m fighting fear.  A beloved mentor said this to me:
I will quote from Frank Herbert’s Dune:  “Fear is the mind killer!”  Sounds like you’re holding on too tight.  Remove the chains of fear from your mind and you’ll be fine.  Remember, you’re doing this for yourself.  Clear your mind of self-doubt and affirm your essential self.

My teacher is right in all but one thing:  I’m also doing this for my Muse, because this degree is not the end, it’s just the beginning of the life I want with her.
I’m also fighting all the usual fights – distraction, procrastination, lack of self-care, poor time management, and responding to crises rather than planning ahead. 

But, again, here’s the thing:  I’m aware of how precious time is, because it is short.  To build on Peck’s argument, one not only has to know and accept that life is difficult, but one should know and accept how difficult it is.  What I’m doing is extremely difficult; but it’s not impossible.  It’s been done literally millions of times before.  It’s not inconceivable that I could study for 80 hours in the next two weeks. God has given me the mind and my Muse has given me the motivation.  Now all I need is to Get Started and to Keep Going…for 80 hours.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Rest Is Just Details....

Sometimes it’s good to just sit here and write and see what appears on the page.  I’m not Saul Bellow’s Herzog.  I’m not having an emotional breakdown.  But I have been under some pressure.  The job has new responsibilities and school has started and life seems as demanding as ever, but I still feel gratitude and joy for the opportunity to sit here and write and say, “I love you!” to my Muse.  In just a few short lines I went from feeling tired and distracted to peaceful and excited about the possibilities life has to offer. 
Directly across from my seat is a bookshelf full of books about history, writing, and motivation.  I feel all the potential.  My Muse knows this and that’s why, knowing how busy I am, she still asks me to write.  It’s also why she right to ask this of me.  She and I are one and she knows that no matter how busy I get, no matter how many demands are on my time, she knows I need to be with her.  She knows that when we are together, my energy returns, and fear, pessimism, and discouragement leave.  She makes me realize that much of my life is just details that I need to take care of. 
I need to do certain things and do them well.  I need to do them joyfully, as if God Himself were watching me (He is).  I need to study and get good grades and learn what I need to learn.  I need to become the best I can be in my new responsibilities at work.  But, again, these are just details.  My real life is here...with my Muse.  I’m doing the things I’m doing because they are practical and they are good.  But if I had all the money I needed, I wouldn’t do them.  I’d spend as much time with my Muse as possible.  Morning, noon, and night.
But I don’t have all the money I need.  So I must not need it yet.  I must need the things I have now.  I must need the life I have now.  Perhaps (certainly) there are things I need to learn, personally and professionally.  Perhaps (certainly) my character needs development and maturation.  And perhaps (certainly) things happen in the right way at the right time.  But it’s always time to be with my Muse.  It’s always time to Get Started and Keep Going.  Now, in the past, and in the future.  The rest is just details. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

One More Step

I’m tired, but I’m not giving up.
Sometimes it seems that for every step forward I take, I also take two steps back.  But I’m not giving up.
Some things in my life are better, but the ones that are worse seem much worse.  But I’m not giving up.
I’m not giving up.
I’m not giving up.
I’m not giving up.
In order to say that, I have to know what I’m fighting for.  I do.  It’s my goal.  It’s personal and private and all mine, but whether I keep it secret or announce it to the whole world, it’s mine.  And I think this is what each of us needs.  We need a goal.  We need something worth striving for, maybe even something worth dying for.  Because something worth dying for is the same thing that gives us a reason to live.  When we have a goal, life becomes worth living.             
It’s not that it wasn’t worth living before and it’s not that life isn’t a gift unto itself.  But a goal, a worthwhile goal, makes life extra special.  It brings joy to our lives while, perhaps paradoxically, brings more difficulty as well.  Or maybe the difficulty would have been there anyway.  Or maybe by avoiding the difficulties, we avoid the joy.  I don’t know.  All I know is that I have a goal and I’m not giving up. 
When I was 15 years old and living in Monterey Bay area I had a goal to go to the San Diego Comic Con.  Then I made it my goal to get straight A’s.  I was fortunate to be successful in both.  Now I have another goal.  Sometimes it seems that life gets in the way.  It doesn’t.  Troubles come, distractions come, interruptions come, to test our resolve. 
So I’m not giving up. 
In A Return to Love, Marianne Williamson says, “The spiritual path, then, is simple the journey of living our lives.  Everyone is on a spiritual path.  Most people just don’t know it.”
But if I’m on a path, if I’m on a journey, it makes more sense to have a destination. 
I have one.  And I’m not giving up.
I’m going to Get Started and Keep Going. 

And if there’s nothing new or nothing original about this blog, even that doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that I took one more step…and that I’m not giving up.

Each Moment

Good morning.  (Normally I don’t start a blog with reference to the time – 6:00 a.m. – but it’s relevant here.)   This is just a quick reminder that each moment is precious.  Not only that, but each moment is precious in two ways, first, practically, and second, spiritually.  I will touch upon the practical first.  This morning when I woke up, earlier than usual I’m pleased to say, I wasted a few minutes here and a few minutes there.  In all, I might have lost fifteen minutes.  That is fifteen minutes I won’t get back.  Fifteen minutes I could have used to get something done that would have made my morning easier and less stressful.  Fifteen minutes that would have made me feel better about myself. 
I’ll still get done what I want to get done.  And there’s no point in beating one’s self up for what cannot be changed, but I mention this for me, not for you, because I am a notorious time waster.  A couple of minutes here, a couple of minutes there, and…BAM!...I’ve lost 30 or 60 minutes. 
It’s not that every single moment has to be productive, but if time really is precious, like money, or more than money, can I afford to squander it?  I suppose all of us could work non-stop all day long and that’s not what I’m arguing for here.  What I am arguing for is awareness and presence.  Is whatever I’m doing at the moment the best use of my time?
For example, during my writing time this morning, I found myself absentmindedly cutting the unnecessary edges from the box-top vouchers so that they all looked nice and orderly.  Then I recycled the offending edges into my recycle bin.  I suppose this gave me some sense of satisfaction.  The box-tops will go to the school and they will look tidy.  It doesn’t get much better than that.  And yet…and yet…I could hear that still small voice saying, “This is nice, but is it the best use of your time?”
It’s not that there is never a time to be anal-retentive.  It’s not that there’s never a time to take a nap or read a comic book or play Panda Pop on my phone.  There can and should be time for these kinds of activities…maybe just not at 5:45 in the morning when I have three pages of journal to fill, a lunch to pack, and a shower to take (along with a much needed shave).
I’ve mentioned before that it’s often the small choices that do us in…or lift us up.  It’s the five minutes here and the five minutes there that can make all the difference.  This is why I bring a book wherever I go.  This is why I listen to something instructive while in the shower or on the way to work.  Just twenty minutes a day of adds up to two hours a week.  This blesses me and it allows me to bless others when I share something new I’ve learned.  This is why the practical use of time is precious.  It can become a blessing to others and to ourselves.
It is also practical on a spiritual plane.  Time is a gift from God.  When I use my time well, I feel better about myself.  But I also realize, as I said, it’s a gift from God.  Why would God give me a gift?  Maybe He wants to see how I will use it.  There are few things more regretful and frustrating than giving a gift to someone, a gift that I planned out in advance and gave great thought and care in the giving of, only to see the recipient put it away in a closet or (and I saw this once) give it to charity and announce cheerfully, not remembering it came from me, “I’m glad I got rid of that!”

Maybe God wants us to see that He’s given us the gift of time, not just so we can be practical (although obviously practicality has its place), but precisely because it is precious.  It’s more precious than gold because not one single moment can be replaced or retrieved.  And here’s the thing.  Because it’s a gift, we are free to use it however we want.  God’s only hope in this is that we enjoy each moment and that we recognize the sacredness of what we’ve been given. Each moment is an opportunity to improve life for others or for ourselves, even to change life altogether.  Each moment is an opportunity to learn, to enjoy, to work, to live, to love. Each moment is an opportunity to Get Started and to Keep Going.