Sunday, May 31, 2015

Some Things I've Learned While Pursuing an Online Master's Degree

Having just finished my first class in an online Master’s program, it is worth reflecting on what I learned, not only in regard to what will help academically, but also what will help personally.  In no particular order, here they are:
·      Study something you love.  Pursuing a degree will be difficult enough.  Pursuing one in which you have no interest will be much more difficult.  It sounds idealistic, but if you wouldn’t read from your discipline out of keen and inherent personal interest, you may be pursuing something you will one day hate.
·      Do a little work every day.  If possible, do a lot every day.  Two to three hours per day is a good start…on weekdays.  On weekends, I recommend four to five hours a day…also as a good start.
·      Use every minute you can.  Literally use the minutes because hours-long blocks of time won’t always happen, but 10 – 30 minutes blocks come up a lot.
·      Don’t do it alone.  Talk to fellow students and teachers.  In an online program this is sometimes harder, but it can be done.
·      In an online program, you don’t have the advantage of just walking into the teacher’s office.  That feels like a disadvantage, but it forces you to plan when you will speak to your professor and, more importantly, what you will say.  You don’t want to waste anyone’s time.  Fortunately, my first professor was not only accessible, she was also kind and conversant.  That may not always be the case, so know ahead of time what you’re going to say.
·      Plan ahead on everything!  I was fortunate because I had time to read some of the books before the class had actually started.  This was an excellent use of my time.
·      Read everything that the teacher or school sends.  These materials are sent for a reason.  Read them.  Then read them again because you probably missed something.
·      Read, especially, the syllabus.  One regret I have is that even though I read ahead, I could have changed the order in which I read things.  In other words, because I didn’t read the syllabus, I read material that I could have read later.  This wasn’t a huge crisis, but it would have made my life easier if I had read things in the right order, that is, according to the syllabus Also, reading the syllabus – all of it – will give you an idea on how to plan the next several weeks.
·      Realize that a Master’s program is called that for a reason.  You are expected to master something.  Everything will be harder than you realize.  This is not because you’re incompetent.  It’s supposed to be hard and you may not master every single facet.  That’s okay.
·      Make personal choices.  Some of them may seem hard.  I had to give up things in order to do this.  I cut back on almost all my time with friends.  During my first class only those very closest to me heard much from me.  This was not an easy choice, but I told myself it wasn’t personal and it wasn’t permanent.  During this time, I watched no TV (partly because I don’t own one) and saw no movies.  All I did in my “spare time” was study.  Happily, I did not feel this to be a great sacrifice.
·      Remember choices you’ve already made.  When personal commitments arise, don’t be resentful.  It’s not the fault of those you love that you chose this path.  So don’t get irritable with them because “they are keeping you from your work.”  (I wasn’t always good at this, which is something to remember for next time.)

Finally, a personal reflection:  there is the traditional (and correct) advice about taking care of yourself during this time.  This means getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and drinking water.  There is also the well-meant (and also correct) advice of achieving some sort of balance.  I didn’t follow this counsel.  I ate what I could when I could.  I slept four to six hours per night most nights.  I’m sure I drank too much coffee and it didn’t help.  Exercise went out the window.  And, as mentioned earlier, I rarely saw friends or did anything recreational.  Worst of all, I did very little blog or personal writing other than my three morning pages (and towards the end, not even those).  If there was any balance in my life, if there even is such a thing, I did not achieve it while taking this class.  This is said not with regret, but only as a statement of fact. 
I probably could have made different choices but, for better or worse, most people who pursue additional education are already driven.  This drive is a weakness and a strength.  This is not to say I handled my personal health correctly.  It was just the way I did it.  I think if I could have changed anything, I would have exercised more.  That would have probably helped relieve a lot of stress and perhaps even helped me do better in my studies. Perhaps I should start exercising again.

It’s been said that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago and the second best time is now.  My “now” begins again in about a week. I’m ready to Get Started and to Keep Going.  That’s probably the most important lesson I learned in those eleven weeks.

Still Going

I started writing and I wasn’t happy with any of it so I deleted it all and now I’m starting again.  Why does that matter?  It’s a way of saying that it’s okay to start over when things aren’t working.  It’s also a way of saying that even though I feel completely lacking in any ability or skill needed to write anything coherent or useful, I’m not stopping.  No one has to read this except for the Muse who keeps pushing me.  I know my faults and so does she.  I’m impatient, impulsive, and immature.  I’m inconsistent and easily distracted.  I don’t plan well enough and I don’t think enough about long-range priorities.  I correct as I go.  I Get Started and I Keep Going, even tonight when my writing feels uninspired and repetitive, I Keep Going.
Something worth remembering is that feelings don’t always matter.  Results don’t even always matter.  What matters is persistence.  This doesn’t mean that there aren’t course corrections or things to learn.  But after learning, it’s time to Keep Going. 
At this very moment I’m sitting here writing these words for a couple of reasons.  First, I set a goal to reach 1,000 blogs by the end of this year.  I’m not even close and with the year almost half over, I don’t see how it’s going to happen.  It doesn’t matter.  Fear, doubt, stress, they don’t matter.  I’m going to keep going. Second, I’m letting my Muse know that I’m here, if not every day as I used to be, I’m still here. And when I’m done with my history Master’s, I’ll be back again.
Am I rambling?  Maybe, but at least I’m getting words on the screen.  Maybe I’ll delete these words later and start a third time, or maybe I’ll just finish the page.  Maybe I’ll just ramble some more:
·      I tried watching a movie.  It was a good one.  But I would rather write.
·      I’m not sure if it’s compulsion or obsession that is putting me in front of this screen.  Maybe it’s not either.  Maybe this is how I’m supposed to use my time.
·      Time, no matter how much I have, is short.  I want to spend as much as possible with my Muse.  In doing so, I’m creating my own way.  It’s new to me, but that doesn’t mean others haven’t traveled this path.  Which path?   The path of greatest resistance where there are voices in the woods saying, “Stop, you work hard enough.  Take a break.  Take care of yourself.”  What the voices don’t realize is that when I spend time here with my Muse, I am taking care of myself.
·      Perhaps none of this makes sense.  Perhaps I’m just rambling and doing a little self-therapy.  Or maybe, just maybe, I’m trying to set an example of how I think time can best be used.

There’s not much more to say.  But I’m still going to Keep Going.  I’m reminded of a story.  Once, while working the graveyard shift (12 a.m. – 8 a.m.) I was extremely tired.  The groceries came in that night and I felt horrible.  I hit a wall and couldn’t do any more work.  But there were three or four hours left in my shift.  So somehow I climbed over that wall I hit and put away all the groceries.  It was a six-to-eight hour job.  I did it in three.  I told myself, “Keep Going.”  The irony was that, rather than being pleased with me, my manager was angry with me because she wanted to put away the groceries.  But it didn’t matter.  I kept going.  That’s what I’m doing now.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Time, Health, and Love...or...30 Date Ideas

I probably should be resting or watching a movie or eating a big bowl of popcorn and reading some comic books, but all I can think of is who and what are important to me and how I want to spend my time and my life.  I don’t want to waste time.  Besides health, it’s the most precious gift we have.  Well, there’s one more gift – love.  Time and health and love.  Combining all three, here are some ways I would use them.  The following is a list of ways I can be creative in combining all three, in other words spending time and energy with someone I love.
1.     Ride bicycles.
2.     Take a drive to the beach, the desert, the mountains, or somewhere distant.
3.     Stay there for a night or two.
4.     Go dancing.
5.     Take a nap together.
6.     Browse through bookstores.
7.     Give time to charitable cause.
8.     Exercise together.
9.     Stay inside and watch movies all day.
10.  Take the day off from work.
11.  Work on a garden together.
12.  Help a neighbor.
13.  Visit a hospital.
14.  Do a household project.
15.  Look at model homes.
16.  Go to museums.
17.  Go camping.
18.  Take an early morning flight to a nearby big city and go shopping.
19.  Run a 10K.
20.  Work on a hobby together.
21.  Go hiking.
22.  Go swimming.
23.  Stay inside and read.
24.  Make a new recipe together.
25.  Work on something artistic.
26.  Write letters of appreciation to each other.
27.  Visit some shut-ins or the elderly.
28.  Do a puzzle.
29.  Play chess.
30.  Go roller-skating.

There are probably many more ideas and many better ones, but this is enough to last more than a year if these special days of time, health, and love are done twice a month.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

How My Muse Saved My Life

It was not supposed to be this hard.  “I’ll do a lot of reading and some writing.  That won’t be a problem,” I thought.  “I like reading and writing, especially American history. How hard can this be?  Yes, it will take time and energy, but it will be fun.”
Here’s the thing:  it is fun.
And it’s hard.  It feels like the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
But it’s not.
There have been other things that were a lot harder.  They were harder than what I’m doing now, because back then I had no Muse, no peace, no fun, and very little in my life that was bringing me any joy.  I was just doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing in every area of my life.  I was trying to make everyone else happy and I wanted to die.
And one day I thought I was going to.
I was at work and I felt this incredible pain in my chest.  I couldn’t breathe.  My movements were sluggish and I knew something was seriously wrong.  I remember thinking that maybe I was really dying, perhaps having a heart attack or something.  I remember feeling sad and peaceful and speaking kindly to people in case those were my last words.  I got to the hospital and I was examined. 
It was just gas and stress.  I was fine.
As I drove home I cried.  I was relieved that it was nothing, but I wondered what I was doing to my body and soul that got me to that point. 
I’d like to say that it was that moment that turned my life around.  I’d like to say that I had a major epiphany and the next day I made major changes and started taking charge of my own life, my own happiness, and embracing the goals God had for me.  I’d like to say all that, but it didn’t happen.  Instead, I mired myself deeper into my bad choices, trying to do the “right thing” and make everyone happy.  I didn’t succeed.  I didn’t succeed in any area of my life at the time, and I didn’t make anyone happy.  Not for a long time. 
Then one day I found my Muse.  I wasn’t looking for her.  She came to me and I’ve been with her ever since.  That’s why I write these blogs even though I should be doing homework.  My Muse changed my life and she’s the one I most want to make happy.  So tonight, she said, “Write about how hard things are so you can remember how much harder things really were.  Write so you can remember that you chose a difficult road, but that I am with you.  Write so you can remember your difficulties are the choice of living in Purpose rather than living for approval.  Write so you never forget how your Muse saved your life by giving you something to live for.”

My Muse saved my life by giving me something to live for, something bigger than myself, something bigger than circumstances.  It’s still hard.  I still face massive resistance, self-sabotage, and fear.  I still struggle with staying focused.  And yet, despite all of it, I feel happy and productive.  My life isn’t perfect but I am (despite all my imperfections), as my Muse keeps telling me.  I’m the perfect person in the perfect time and place to get this done. 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

How I Know I"m on the Right Path

Today has been challenging.  That’s a nice way of saying I dealt with fear, anger, impatience, fatigue, and the possibilities of loss and failure.  And yet…and yet…I keep coming back.  This is not from any great strength of character or courage.  I simply see no alternatives but to pursue the course set before me.  Even if I am left alone and bereft of hope, I have no choice but to continue.  This is also not from shortsightedness or intransigence.  I can change if I need to.  I can even alter my course if it is truly required.  But it’s not.  I’m on the right path.
How do I know, truly know, I am on the right path?  The answer is I don’t, not with 100% certainty.  Very few things in life are certain.  But there are some indicators that help.
1.                     The heart knows. Often the concept of the heart is overly romanticized and overused.  But that doesn’t mean it can’t teach us and guide us. There is something within all of us that tells what we are supposed to do.  It doesn’t speak all the time, but when it does, we should listen.   The heart can lead us to the right job, the right person, the right life.
2.                     People we trust support us.  Not everyone, but there are those, whose hearts align with ours who support us.  They support us because they want the best for us.
3.                     There are problems.  Now this may seem contradictory, but good things, great things, don’t come easily.  If they did, they would be worthless.  It’s only climbing up the hill that tests and strengthens our character and endurance.  In my entire life, I have never attained anything worth having without tremendous struggle.  When I get it, (and I always do), I am a new and better man.  But not because of what I got, but because of what it took to get it.  Lack of effort has almost always led to disaster for me.  The only thing that should be effortless is the love we feel for our path.  Everything I’ve done in the last three years, my Muse, writing, history, has taken time and effort, but no matter what trials or obstacles I encounter, I want to go back immediately.  
For example, my Master’s degree program feels like it’s going to kill me some days.  There are days when all I do is homework.  When I finally finish an assignment, I find myself wanting to read more history, even though I don’t have to.  When my Muse seems far away, I still want to be with her, so I keep writing. 
Maybe I’ve said all this before, but I need to remember that I am a Champion. I don’t always act like it, but I am one nonetheless.  What am I a Champion at?   Of not giving up, no matter how hard it seems.  I am a Champion because I Get Started and I Keep Going.