Focusing on the Big Picture

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Dear P,

I miss you so much! I am so looking forward to our road trip and summer quests.

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In the words of the great Willie Nelson, I can’t wait to get on the road again.

My free time this semester has been divided into two extra learning experiences, as you know. One is an EMT-basic certification class and the other is the UT Undergraduate Writing Center internship. These are two very different skills, but I have been surprised by how much they have in common.

Both have routines meant to ward off critical mistakes. Both focus on making sure you, the helper, are “safe” first. In an emergency situation, an EMT is not supposed to enter the scene if anything looks unsafe, even if she can see an ailing patient. We learned what meth labs look like this week so that we will be able to avoid them. If a writer makes a consultant feel uncomfortable, the consultant is expected to ask for a replacement at the front desk.

Most of all, I appreciate how both EMT school and the writing center curriculum teach you to approach what’s really wrong first, and then focus on the details. Grammar doesn’t matter if the ideas in your essay don’t make any sense. Splinting a broken wrist won’t help if a patient’s lungs are collapsing. It is easier to notice minor injuries as the sufferer. If your finger has been sliced open, you will be able to see and feel it. However, a lacerated finger isn’t going to kill you. More serious injuries (heart attacks, strokes, diabetic emergencies) may hurt, but not always in a way that is easily recognizable. That is why patients/writers need EMTs/writing consultants to help them reflect over what is a big issue and which is a small issue. None of us have unlimited time. We have to pick which problems to focus on.

When I have a problem in my life, I often find myself obsessively cleaning my room. This has yet to help me solve any real problems in my life, but I feel that if I could just get this floor clean things would be all right. This is like fixing grammar in an essay that lacks a thesis: an utter waste of time. I am beginning to recognize that when I act like this I need help to realize what is actually wrong. I turn to my own personal consultants, my mom (mainly), you, my dear IM (who hopefully will come back to Texas eventually), and other trusted loved ones to help me prioritize my problems. Only then can I stop being a myopic idiot and actually improve my life.

Who are your main consultants, P? Do you compulsively clean when you know you know something big is going wrong? Just kidding, I know you hate cleaning.

Much love and no clorox,

E

Vulnerability in Frozen and My Life

“Life is going to present to you a series of transformations. And the point of education should be to transform you. To teach you how to be transformed so you can ride the waves as they come. But today, the point of education is not education. It’s accreditation. The more accreditation you have, the more money you make. That’s the instrumental logic of neoliberalism. And this instrumental logic comes wrapped in an envelope of fear. And my Ivy League, my MIT students are the same. All I feel coming off of my students is fear. That if you slip up in school, if you get one bad grade, if you make one fucking mistake, the great train of wealth will leave you behind. And that’s the logic of accreditation. If you’re at Yale, you’re in the smartest 1% in the world. […] And the brightest students in the world are learning in fear. I feel it rolling off of you in waves. But you can’t learn when you’re afraid. You cannot be transformed when you are afraid.” Junot Díaz, speaking at Yale

Dear P,

I’m sorry about your computer troubles. I hope you can get everything up and running again soon. Also, I hope everyone reading this is safe and warm.

I spent May of 2013 at my aunt’s house in Georgia. I lived in the basement and spent a lot of time reading Murakami and Ian McEwan, listening to Joni Mitchell’s album “Blue” and hanging out with my two-and-four-year-old cousins.

That month I dealt with a lot of shame. I made awful grades my freshman year of college. I was in this program where I could have been pre-accepted to either of two Texas medical schools, but because of my grades neither let me in. I knew my GPA was below my honor program’s standards and wondered when I would get the email that I was kicked out. I had enormous opportunities offered to me and I wasted them. I felt like I had managed to mess up my entire future in my first semester of college and that the repercussions of my failures would soon set in.

I felt the same way Elsa feels in the beginning of Frozen after she curses her sister. She feels the shame of hurting Anna and the fear of what will happen if Anna and the rest of the world find out about it. Elsa worries that something crazy-awful will happen to Anna’s brain if she learns her secret because the troll-magician told her Anna shouldn’t know about any sort of magic.

Back to my aunt’s house, where I was listening to Joni Mitchell and awaiting my impending doom, too scared to talk to anyone except my mom and eventually my aunt about my situation. The storm never came. It stunned me to realize that, though I had made bad grades, life continued. I had one beautiful day after another. Life didn’t suddenly lose all of its precious moments: I continued reading and playing and working on weird projects (I was trying to come up with the solution to Australia’s cane toad infestation). In other words, I didn’t lose E when I lost her impeccable GPA. I didn’t feel dumber and the word “failure” didn’t brand itself on my forehead. I will always be me, always be resourceful, even if it took me a little while to learn how to make A’s in college.

My shame was blocking me from doing better. During my freshman year, I was embarrassed to talk to professors and ashamed to ask my friends for advice. I felt like the grades gave me a shroud of stupidity that kept everyone from respecting me and my ideas.

My transformation from scared girl to fearless diva has taken a lot longer than Elsa’s. I still make decisions out of fear some days. Grades are powerful. They have bolstered us up for our entire sentient lives. What happens when they no longer back us up, whispering yes, this opportunity is yours, you earned it, you’re smart, you work hard, your ideas are valid?

Only you hold the answer to that question. Rip off the band-aid, pick off the scab, let as many people as possible know about it. It’s the only way people can help you and, more importantly, honesty is the only way to help yourself. Grades are not mysterious, undeniable measures of self-worth. You can easily improve them, and I have.

My mom asked me today if I knew who Brené Brown is and I said, “Yeah. She’s the anti-shame vulnerability lady.” It clicked to me that shame is what I have slowly been shedding since May, shame is what was holding me back, and shame is why I identified so deeply with Elsa. I no longer learn for the grades and I no longer write for the accolades, and because of that I am free from the fear of not reaching them and the shame of not having them.

Since I read your post about choosing one word to think about this year instead of resolutions, I’ve been considering what word I want to base my life around this year. I chose the word “brave” today. I want to move beyond the fear of failure, the fear of feeling like I’ve disappointed the people I love, and the fear of traveling to unknown places. I want to live my life so mindfully I have no mental room for fear. When I feel fear and shame I want to tell people so they can help me, love me, give me advice and know that I have failed.

Bad things happen and life usually turns out okay. Some of it doesn’t. My mom, after she asked me about Brené Brown, told me that her friend was taking a course based on Brown’s teachings. My mom’s friend has experienced a devastating amount of tragedy in her life. Such sadness put my problems in perspective and reminds me of a quote from Dear Sugar:

“Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.”

So unclench your shoulders. Take a deep breath. Say some prayers for people you love. Create something, like Elsa created her magnificent ice castle. You can fail miserably and still have a brilliant life. In fact, you can’t not fail miserably and have a brilliant life. Shed the fear and enjoy yourself. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.

Yours,

E

What I’ve Learned Through Keeping a Logbook

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Dear P,

I have done a pretty good job of keeping track of the day-to-day activities of 2014. The first week of school, I forgot to log some days. When I tried to write down the events of a day from the week before, I found that I was unable to. This terrified me and renewed my logbook gusto.

When photographing my logbook for this post, I found that I struggled to find a day that didn’t reveal too much of my personal life. The viewing and funeral days were too much. So was the day I got frustrated with someone close to me. I found two consecutive days that I documented well but didn’t contain anything crazier than the possibility that I might have tuberculosis.

I made my logbook out of an old textbook about animals that I found for $2 at goodwill. It has exactly 364 pages, so I started on the cover page. I glued in January’s pages in while watching the first Harry Potter movie with MuggleHustle’s audio hustle dubbed over. There are eight Harry Potter movies, so this strategy will last for eight months. Austin Kleon uses moleskins for his logbooks. There is no assembly required with moleskins and they would provide a nice consistency from year to year.

I keep my logbook to remind myself of the fun times I have had and to look forward to the blank pages. If I am not doing something productive or extraordinarily fun, I have a higher chance of catching myself and stopping because I will have to hold myself accountable by writing it down later. A logbook is motivation to keep myself living deliberately.

Have fun filling your own logbook, real or figurative,

Love,

E

Office Hours

(Me at office hours with one of my heroes, Anis Mojgani)

Dear P,

You’ve been blogging up a storm! San Francisco sounds beautiful and your job sounds AMAZING. I love hearing about all the magic going on in your life. Including those boss leather pants. Mostly the boss leather pants, actually. But yeah, the beautiful view of the city from your apartment, your adorable roommate, and that you get to choose the clothes for fashion shows doesn’t sound so bad either.

The first day of school was perfect, but I wanted to talk to you about one of my goals for this semester: office hours. In this stage in our friendship, you are aware of my authority-induced-social-anxiety. I failed to give volunteer Santa a hot chocolate I got him because I was too shy. Last semester, before I went to my favorite professor’s office hours every week to ask questions about my favorite subject, I had to stand outside and count to sixty while taking deep breaths, and even then I had to promise myself I would get some chocolate afterwards.

While many of my professors at UT have been nothing but kind and supportive, even in response to my high-pitched and rushed questions, there are many who would much rather be doing research or other work than spending time talking to nervous undergraduates. Which, I mean, I understand. My first semester of college, I went to talk to my psychology professor about the advantages and disadvantages of getting a psychology degree over a neurobiology/neuroscience degree. She had just gotten some bad news. Her blatant unhappiness coupled with my nervousness meant that I was completely unintelligible and nearly in tears by the end of the consultation. I have since thought in depth about how to improve my demeanor in office hours or in other situations where I feel intimidated.

Make sure you know what your professors do. Many of the professors at UT have summaries of their research online, and a quick google search never hurt anyone. This way, you have something to talk about other than yourself. Make sure you have a quality introduction planned, especially if you’re in a big class and there’s a chance that the professor has no idea who you are. For example: “Hi, I am E. I am a sophomore getting my degree in neurobiology and writing with a psychology minor. I am interning in the writing center and taking an EMT course in addition to my regular studies.” There are any number of things from that introduction that may resonate with a professor. Building rapport is the key here. I have found it helpful to bring professors some small, casual gift, like a hot chocolate. This makes them smile and keeps you from feeling like a sponge of their time. Look, you have something to offer them! I am going to meet with one of my old TAs (the great Joe Hanson of It’s Okay to Be Smart) so I can pick his brain about how he got to write for Wired magazine (one of my personal ambitions), whether or not graduate school is worth the time and money, and just generally how I can be more like him. Professors are obligated to at least be there to see you because you are paying them, but Joe has agreed to hang out with me out of the goodness of his heart. I have been scouring his videos to make sure I have plenty of conversation topics planned out, and during my research I came across a beautiful speech about special snowflake syndrome at the end of this video. I’m going to make a blank notebook or poster out of the speech somehow. It’s going to be awesome.

Remember, even though it might make you feel better to bring a small gift, most people want to help you. Especially professors. Their research may keep them busy, but building relationships with students is at least in their top three priorities (or they wouldn’t have become professors). Some rare asshats may dislike you right off the bat, but if you start off the conversation with hot chocolate and asking them about their research, you may even overcome a bad first impression. If you can’t, it’s in your best interest to switch classes. College is an investment of time and money, and there is no way you are getting the most out of your investment if you are not taking advantage of being in the vicinity of some of the best minds out there. Work to get the professor talking and make yourself feel as much at ease as possible. They’re just people, and all people like to talk about themselves.

You can ask many people for advice, not just your professors. I send regular fanmail to my favorite authors and bloggers, and sometimes they write me back (see Joe Hanson). Many of my heroes have made appearances at BookPeople, the local bookstore. I follow them on twitter so I can keep up-to-date. That’s how I got to talk to Anis Mojgani.

You probably think I’m ridiculous, P, because talking to people has always been your forte, but it’s a struggle for me and I have to continue to improve. If anyone has any advice for me, I would be happy to receive it (unless it’s “don’t be so neurotic” because I’ve tried that). In the meantime, I will continue practicing.

Love love love,

E

Focusing on the Process

Dear P,

I remember you once said that you wanted out blog to be more real. I knew what you meant, but I hadn’t figured out how. Filters surround our society like pretty scabs. It’s hard to be honest.

This break, I read Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones”. Natalie Goldberg is a poet, which is interesting, because besides a brief stint in seventh grade I have never been much of a poet. The most valuable thing in the book is her advice to keep an ugly notebook and do timed writings every day. Since December 31st, I have filled nine pages.

I put up an enormous fight to begin this notebook. I wrote about how writing for myself didn’t make any sense, because I thought all writing should be a conversation (hence why I love this blog). I wrote about how I thought a diary was myopic and a waste of time. Then, I wrote for several pages about my disgust for my brother’s man-boobs when I was fifteen years old. My pettiness and vanity shone through like never before. I realized why Goldberg recommends keeping a diary like this and not letting yourself stop. You can cut through your own bullshit when you are forced to have a conversation with yourself. It stops being about how many likes or views  you get, or if so-and-so will publish you, and starts being about how honest you can be with yourself. It becomes about the process, and not the end success story, of writing.

Yesterday was January 1st. A lot of people resolved to run a marathon in 2014. Many of these people will never achieve that goal, because many of these people hate running. You have to love it. I started running because I have the hand-eye coordination of a toaster and I enjoy the endorphin high. I resolved to run a marathon last year because it sounded impressive (again, pettiness and vanity). I may have started training for the wrong reasons, but through the training I learned to love running. Even if you listen to a book on tape or music while you run, it’s hard to pull your mind away from the step, step, step. I like the isolation of it- it’s a form of meditation. If I fart, no one cares. I am too fast.

I am learning that everything is like that. The step, step, step of running is like the sound of my fingers on the keyboard or my pen on my notebook. I am learning to love the process of writing as opposed to worrying about the end result. We had the conversation on the last day of 2013 about how you wanted to love the process of learning, like you used to, without thinking about the grades. You want to focus on the process. I don’t know how to ignore the grades, but I admire and respect you so much for wanting to enjoy learning. I think just the realization that you want it will help you with your journey. The realization that you want it, and the practice, which you won’t escape anyway.

I love you,

I can’t wait to hear about how you biked down a volcano today,

E

Our Favorite Ten New Year’s Resolutions

 

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E’s Top 5 Resolutions (picked by P)

1. Read at least thirty books.

2. Write love letters.

3. Be curious about everything.

4. No half-hugs.

5. Work on my writings for at least an hour every single night.

 

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P’s Top 5 Resolutions (picked by E)

1. Make a video every day documenting your highs and lows.

2. Do as many things on the bucket list as possible. (Try to get AT LEAST 15 this year)

3. Say yes more than no.

4. Create a jar of happy moments

5. Be infinite.