March 2018


Ditch the Templates; Listen to Your Gut

The Rules of Life aka The Templates

My life has never fit into many of life’s templates so I have learned to trust my gut when making decisions. In fact, many of my best decisions have been bad decisions according to everyone else. Why? Because my decisions have rarely adhered to rules about what one is supposed to do and how and when one is supposed to do it.

High school drop out

People are often surprised to find out that I dropped out of high school in the 11th grade. Why did I drop out? At the time, I would have said I was burned out or I was bored. Looking back, however, what I was calling boredom and describing as burnout most likely was related to the fact that I am a narcoleptic. I would not be diagnosed till I was 38 years old, which is a typical pattern unfortunately, but all the signs were there. It is hard to explain to people who are not narcoleptic what it is like to be excessively sleepy all day, every day. Constantly fighting to stay awake is quite literally painful. Therefore, going to school was painful.

I moved to Toronto where I got a job working at the head office of an insurance company right downtown in the heart of the city. For a few years, I worked in a clerical position in cubicle culture. I made a decent salary for someone without a lot of education. I worked with interesting people.  I also became certified as an aerobics instructor and taught in the company’s fitness center on a volunteer basis. I acquired a few job skills as well.

“That’s where I want to be”

At one point, I took an in-house course on effective business writing. It was taught by a woman whose name was Leesha Van Leewan. Leesha had presence like I’d never seen before. She seemed at least 7 feet tall with a head of flaming red hair, and she moved through space like a dancer. As I watched her at the front of the room, I remember thinking, “that’s where I want to be.” Until that day, I’d never imagined myself teaching. Nonetheless, my epiphany was the beginning of my journey to the front of the university classroom.

I had a dream

The next step came in October, 1989. I had a dream one night in which my friends from high school were graduating from university. I woke the next morning knowing that it was time to go back to school. At work that morning I called several local high schools and found out what I needed to do in order to be eligible to apply to universities. By the end of the day, I had a plan. In February, 1990 I enrolled in courses at a local high school. In September, I enrolled as a physical education major at York University in Toronto.

Now, just to be clear, I’m not advocating dropping out of high school.  But I don’t regret having done so. My 17 year old gut, wise beyond its years, told me dropping out was the right move. And you know what? It was. I know this because I was exactly where I needed to be when my unconscious spoke to me in that dream and said, “Linda, your time is now.” Indeed it was.

When I was ready, I went

When I  started university, I was ready and therefore I was successful. I loved every minute of my undergraduate experience. Was it hard? Yes and that’s what I liked about it. The work was engaging, the professors were fantastic, and the courses were rigorous. In part, because university schedules are more flexible than high school schedules, it was easier to work around what I now know were the challenges of living with narcolepsy.  I loved the process of discovering what I didn’t know I didn’t know.

In 1995, after a change in major, I graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English with a minor in Humanities. I went on to graduate school at the University of Alberta where I earned an M.A. and a Phd in English with specialization in African American literature and culture. After a stint as a post-doctoral research fellow at NYU, I became a professor at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, Arkansas.

I’m glad that, even at 17, my instinct was to listen to my gut when making decisions. Some people might see my “I’m a high school dropout” story as an “in spite of…” tale.  They are wrong. It is a “because of ” tale. That is, I am a university professor because I dropped out of high school. My deviation from life’s education template, my bad decision, was the best thing I ever did.

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times: if one does not go to university or college directly out of high school, then he or she will never go back. Sure, that may be the case for some people. In my opinion, however, that’s not a bad thing. If someone does not go to college or university right out of high school and never goes back, thus deviating from one of many templates about how to have a good life, it probably means he or she was not meant to go in the first place.

Not going to college or university right out of high school is not a character flaw.  A university degree is not the only way to be successful. The world needs plumbers, electricians, welders, horseshoers, and other skilled trades people, all of whom make very nice livings. University degrees are not for everyone. They do not guarantee success or happiness; we need to stop pretending they do.

I wish parents, however well meaning, would stop shoving their versions of life’s templates down their children’s throats. It’s not just parents who are guilty of template torture though. We all need to ditch the templates–all of them–not just the ones related to education. Even if we live up to the expectations that go hand in hand with the templates, doing so won’t make us happy if our motive is that someone told us we should. As my friend Kelley is fond of saying, we need to stop “shoulding” all over ourselves.

Here’s the thing.

The answers to most of our questions about the paths we should take in life are in our guts. It is wise to seek counsel from others, but when you do so at the expense of your own inner voice, no one wins. Each and every one of us knows what we need. Like Dorothy, we already have the power to determine where we need to go. That power is with us all the time. We just need to believe that we have it and then we need to make sure we use it.

So tell me, how often do you surrender to the power of a template? At what cost? How often do you struggle to make decisions because others’ voices are shouting over what your gut is telling you? And deep down, are you okay with that?

Thank you, as always, for reading. I appreciate you.



Why I am a Recovering Pentecostal

Hello my name is Linda and I’m a Recovering Pentecostal

When I say that I am a Recovering Pentecostal people often laugh. However, I’m quite serious; I do in fact identify as a recovering Pentecostal. I was raised in a Pentecostal church on the outskirts of my hometown, Port Elgin, Ontario, Canada. I don’t know if this is the case at all Pentecostal churches, but the sermons at ours were at least 8 hours long.

To add insult to injury, only the adults got to have a snack during those marathon sermons.  That was an injustice of the first order. Eventually, I found out that the little bits of cracker and teeny goblets of grape juice that were passed around to the adults were not snacks, but rather communion. Still, I would have been glad to partake. A kid needs a little somethin’ somethin’ during a 10 hour sermon.

Be careful what you wish for

Sunday school, which preceded the 12 hour sermons, wasn’t all that great either. On one occasion, the teacher brought a loaf of homemade bread to class. I don’t think she’d ever baked bread before because it looked more like a slightly burned blob that was crunchy on the outside and doughy on the inside. She set her lump on the table at the front of the classroom ever so proudly. (Bless her heart.) Then, she explained that the beige blob was really the body of Christ and invited us to taste it.  Um, no.

I should explain that I’m a little weird about food. I do not share food. Ask my friend Shannin. On one of our first lunch dates, she nearly lost her hand when she tried to take a fry off my plate. Also, as much as I love a good steak, I live in a fantasy world. As far as I am concerned, my meat never had a face or a mother and it comes from Wal-Mart. Yes, I am a hypocrite. I wasn’t much different as a child.

So, showing me a weird looking loaf of bread, calling it the body of Christ, and then inviting our whole class to tear chunks off it, wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. Not that anyone offered tea. The thought, and then sight, of everyone’s germ-covered hands ripping hunks off the lump and scarfing them down made me want to puke. I also saw nothing holy about make believe cannibalism, no matter which way one might slice it. Is it any wonder that I was famished by the time those 14 hour sermons ended each week? The only thing I was inclined to pray for on Sunday mornings was a decent meal that had not been manhandled by everyone and their sister.

If 16 hour sermons in the morning weren’t bad enough, Sunday evening services weren’t much better. In fact, they were worse. You see, that’s when they liked to scare the bejezzus out of folks so they’d get saved. One night when I was about 10, we were shown a film about the rapture. There are a bunch of films like it, and I don’t remember the exact title of the one we saw, but the plot resembled that of A Thief in the Night. According to my memory, the plot went something like this. In the opening scene, a whole bunch of cars start crashing on a freeway and bodies are floating into the air.

It turns out that the second coming has occurred and a bunch of pissed off people were left behind. Those left behind are mad as hornets because they had considered themselves outstanding Christians; they aren’t happy that Jesus did not see fit to take them home with Him. All is not lost, I guess, because those left behind get a second crack at making it to heaven. But there’s a bit of a catch. You see, to get to heaven, the left-behind-folks have to refuse to take the mark of the beast (666) on their forehead or wrist. The penalty for refusing to take the mark of the beast is death by guillotine. Nonetheless, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do and the left-behind-folks decide to do. This is where the s*** gets real. 

According to my memory, in the last scene of the movie, people wearing pink hospital-type gowns are standing in line waiting their turn at the guillotine. A woman who we’ve come to root for throughout the film obediently places her head into the designated place, the blades drop, and her head rolls into a laundry basket.

At that point, the lights came up in the church sanctuary, an altar call was issued, and I ran as fast as my legs could carry me to the front of the church where I was greeted by my older brother who was waiting to broker my salvation. Now, before anyone starts praising the lord on my behalf, understand that I did not make a beeline for the altar because I wanted to accept the lord Jesus Christ into my heart. I just didn’t want my head cut off so it seemed logical to take care of business while I had the opportunity. Child abuse every Sunday.

The Aftermath

I’ve since met lots of Pentecostals whose church experiences bear no resemblance to mine. I’m happy for them. But I’m not joking when I tell you that it is not easy recovering from the kind of terrorizing that went on in our church. Reviewer Captain Cassidy describes the effect of A Thief in the Night and similar movies perfectly:

“What’s so astonishing about this entire movie is that, as terrible as it sounds right out of the gate, it is apparently not only the granddaddy of Rapture movies, it has traumatized what might well be millions of young Christians. This movie was shown in churches. It was shown in youth group meetings. It was shown at camps.

Millions of kids have seen this movie, and it scared the ever-lovin’ pants off of them. Adults today right now still carry the barely healed over wounds this movie inflicted on their minds and hearts. It terrified them and informed their nightmares and unnecessarily panicked them every goddamned time they couldn’t physically perceive their loved ones right then and there.”

Cassidy’s description of the impact of watching such horror flicks is an accurate description of my own post-film, post-Pentecostal experience. Frankly, I’m not a fan of churches that try to scare people into heaven. Based on my own experience, I can assure you that the effects of the messages of terror delivered in 18 hour sermons on Sunday mornings and again during evening services were not what the powers-that-be in my childhood church were hoping for. In fact, they were the exact opposite.

I stopped going to church the moment my mom gave me a choice in the matter. Many years passed before I set foot in another church. Moving onto the buckle of the bible belt has challenged me to be sure. At the same time, over the years I’ve been here, I’ve developed a much more nuanced understanding of why people go to church–willingly–and what happens in churches where child abuse is not the order of the day. It’s been eye-opening, to be sure, amusing sometimes, and depressing at others. I’ll write more about those things another time.

Meanwhile, what are you recovering from and how have you made sense of it?

Thank you for reading. Please subscribe. I appreciate you.

Why We Should Talk about Controversial Issues

A lot of people avoid talking about controversial issues due to fear or discomfort. As an academic, I have a hard time wrapping my head around being afraid to talk to someone because we might disagree on a matter. You see, discussing issues that are seen as controversial is a large part of how I make my living. I get paid to read, write, think, and talk about issues related to race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion. To me, talking about such issues is a normal, natural, and important thing to do. I enjoy it.

So I am baffled when, in my “non-academic world,” someone shuts down at the mere mention of a controversial topic. “Don’t they know how fun such discussions can be?” I wonder. The answer, of course, is no, they don’t know that. My training has taught me that such discussions are not only safe but exciting. However, others’ experiences–real or imagined–have taught them that talking about controversial issues may lead to kerfuffles among friends and bad vibes all around. I’ve heard the following as explanations for avoiding certain topics in conversations: “there is no point; h/she is not going to change his/her mind”; “I don’t want to say anything that will offend someone”; “s/he is just going to get mad and I don’t want to ruin our relationship.”

I want people to know that some of the most interesting conversations happen around issues that are considered controversial. Think about it. The issues are not controversial because they are boring; they are controversial because they are important. Important issues are those in which there is something at stake. Controversial issues are those about which people have different takes on what is at stake and for whom. The controversy stems from a disagreement over whose interests matter the most.

To make matters more complicated, somewhere along the line, we have been convinced that someone has to change his or her mind in order for a discussion of a controversial topic to be worth having. Nothing could be further from the truth. Contrary to popular belief, people can talk about issues without anyone having to be right or wrong. This isn’t to say that everyone’s opinion has equal merit; it is to say that it costs us nothing to listen carefully and thoughtfully to another’s point of view.

That is, people can hear and be heard in discussions with one another without having to name “winners” and “losers.” Unfortunately, most people have not learned how to take part strategically in conversations–note I did not say debates–about controversial issues. This needs to change because conversations about controversial issues have great potential for bridging the divides that threaten the well-being of our society at all levels. Where to begin?

Seek to understand before seeking to be understood

Productive, exciting, and intellectually challenging conversations happen when those involved really want to know what others think and why. That is, the best conversations happen when our wish to understand others’ points of view is stronger than our desire to express our own. As Stephen Covey stressed in his well-known best seller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, effective dialogue and win/win outcomes are possible when people come together seeking to understand before seeking to be understood. To put it another way, good things happen when we are willing to listen to what others have to say as opposed to preparing to shoot them down at the first opportunity. It’s that simple.

So what can we do?

Avoiding controversial topics in our conversations with others doesn’t make the topics any less controversial nor does it resolve related issues. Avoidance reinforces and adds to the ways in which we are divided. So, rather than avoiding conversations about controversial issues, we need to create and take advantage of opportunities to have them. Never miss opportunities to find out what you don’t know you don’t know and/or to better understand what doesn’t make sense to you. Take advantage of opportunities to connect with people across lines of difference.

Meanwhile, tell me, how do you feel when faced with the opportunity for such conversations? Do you avoid them? Do you jump right in? What advice do you have to offer? Please share and don’t forget to subscribe to Letters from the Coffee Shop!

Thank you for reading. I appreciate you.

How to Take a Mini-Vacation

Spring break is just a few days away and I am wilting. This week alone we’re conducting 5 Skype interviews for a new professor and we’ve had two candidates on campus. I’m behind in my grading and I am ready to
 collapse. My students look much the way I feel. We all need a mini-vacation!
 I’m guessing you’ve felt the same way at some point–maybe right now. Perhaps you’re thinking, “”vacations cost money and I’ve got so much to do and, and, and…..”  I understand where that comes from, but stop. Just stop. It’s that kind of thinking that gets us into a state of exhaustion and chaos to begin with. I don’t know about you, but when my brain starts to fire like that I’m pretty useless anyway. I’ve found that the best way to restore order to the chaos in my life is to take a mini-vacation.

What is a Mini-Vacation?

 A mini-vacation does what a “real” vacation does, but in a much shorter amount of time. That is, a mini-vacation is a short time during which you step away from all sources of stress. It can be as brief as 30 minutes or as long as a full day. The length of the mini-vacation is determined by how much time you can legitimately plan to set aside for self-care.
Often, by the time we need mini-vacations, it seems impossible to find time to set aside. That feeling is just another indicator that we need to step back. Everyone can find 30 minutes–even if it is at 3:00 in the morning–to nurture herself or himself. A mini-vacation is less about long you spend on it and more about what you do during it. My mini-vacations involve three steps: planning, preparing, and doing things that make me feel centered and focused.

 Preparation & Planning

When I plan a mini-vacation I prepare for it the night before. Not everyone would enjoy this part, but for me it works. I clean and tidy my kitchen and living area, which is where I usually spend my mini-vacations. I put items of clutter in my “tornado room” to deal with another time and I close the door to that nest of chaos. Not having to look at a nest of chaos, even temporarily, helps me decompress. I have to resist the urge to tidy that room because doing so is not part of the mini-vacation preparation plan.

 Before I go to bed, I set the coffee so it is ready to brew in the morning.The last thing I do before turning out my light is make a list of the things that I feel stressed about–big and small. That’s my way of “storing” my stressors instead of carrying them around as brain clutter. Then, I can spend my mini-vacation, usually a morning, doing things that rejuvenate me.

Let the Mini-Vacation Begin

 I wake up early as I always do. I enjoy mornings. I make the bed–one of the quickest ways to bring a sense of calmness to a space, oddly enough. Then I make a cup of tea in a pretty china cup with a saucer. Tea tastes better in something pretty, in case you didn’t know.
 I usually post on Facebook that I am taking some digital detox time so I don’t feel guilty ignoring texts. Sometimes I spend some time playing on Pinterest. I like Pinterest because it helps me plan and I find planning motivating and relaxing. Playing on Pinterest feels a lot like reading magazines for me–another activity that I find calming– but the content is always new and fresh and no trees die in its making.
Mid-morning I make a cup of coffee in my favorite mug. Then, I jot down some goals. I do that in a notebook that I enjoy writing in using a sharp pencil because it feels neat on the paper. I make lists of steps to meet those goals. If I feel like writing, I write. I usually end my mini-vacation around noon–it is important to decide in advance how long your mini-vacation will last .
I find that just a short break from my usual routine surrounded by my creature comforts helps me feel like a new person.–relaxed and ready to get back to work. Tasks like grading usually seem less daunting after a mini-vacation. It’s amazing what just a few hours of  self-care does to restore my sense of balance and control. I don’t spend a dime on a mini-vacation, but the payoff is huge.
If you’re feeling at the end of your rope you should seriously consider planning a mini-vacation. What you do in the time you set aside is up to you. The thing is, we all regain our balance in different ways; it is important to give ourselves the time we need to do that.  None of us can function at our best when our personal batteries are dead. Whether it’s for 30 minutes, a full morning, or an entire day, make time to take good care of you. I guarantee you won’t regret it.
As always, thank you for reading. I appreciate you.