university

Wine & Words Writing Retreat 2019

 

Wine and Words Writing Retreat 2019 is underway in Branson, Missouri! My friends/colleagues, Sara and Shannin, and I–English professors all–are snugly tucked away in a log cabin in the Ozarks for the next couple of days to write. What could be more delicious?

We arrived around 4:30 this afternoon. Each of us came from a different direction. After unloading food, luggage, books, and computers, we poured glasses of wine and spent a couple of hours catching up. Shannin and I are colleagues at the same university; Sara defected to another university a couple of years ago. Our loss, to be sure. 

While Shannin and Sara swapped book ideas for their young adult literature courses, I caught up with a few of my Cup & Quill clients. Then, we talked shop for a little while–topics included the job market for Phds in English, which is as dismal as ever, the peculiarities of department chairs, the politics on university campuses, and the challenges of teaching these days. Eventually, we found ourselves a bit peckish. Sara quickly whipped up a salad and heated some frozen pizzas. We sat down to dinner and continued our conversation.

Other than quick dashes to the store, we won’t leave the cabin much. We are well stocked with wine–Malbec for Shannin and CabSavs for Sara and me–coffee, healthy snacks, the ingredients for some nice meals, and some not-so-healthy snacks as well. No writer that I know can write anything of value without a little chocolate for fuel. 

 After dinner, we had an accountability planning session. Armed with our notebooks, we sat at the table and declared what we intended to focus on this evening and tomorrow morning. We have a mid-day check-in planned to make sure we’re sticking to our plans and making progress.

As I write this, a conversation about Alice Walker’s antisemitism is in progress. Should we still teach her work? What about Sherman Alexie?  These conversations remind me why we got into academia in the first place. We like asking hard questions to which there may not be answers. Such questions lead to more questions and more questions lead to more nuanced ways of seeing the world. That’s what academia is all about.  That’s why the next couple of days are going to be awesome. 

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Why We Should Measure Success on Our Own Terms

As an undergraduate student, I did not start university with any goal other than to do my job to the best of my ability. I followed three rules from day 1. Rule number one was “never miss a class.” Rule number two was “go to class prepared.” Rule number three was “begin assignments and/or study for tests well in advance of the due date.” I used my grades to measure success.

I printed those rules and they were posted in my home office throughout my university career. I followed them religiously and they paid off.

I was, and am, proud of my academic performance as an undergraduate. Indeed, I’ve often said that you could take away my M.A. and Ph.D. However, you’d have to fight me to the death to take away my B.A. My B.A. is the degree of which I’m most proud because it involved learning how to learn. I treasure that document beyond measure.

What Not to Do When You Get a Grade You Don’t Like

As proud as I was/am of my performance as an undergraduate, I regret that my grades were the only way I knew to measure success. Once, as a junior, or third-year student as we say in Canada, I earned an A minus on an essay. I was devastated. I was also mad. So, I wrote the professor a letter telling him that he didn’t know good writing when he saw it. I also suggested that he reevaluate his career choice. (Note: if you’re a student, don’t ever do this.)

Not only did I write that letter–this was before we used email for everything–but I actually mailed it. The professor wasn’t impressed. He called me in and reminded me, in no uncertain terms, that he was the professor and I was the student. In the end, I learned more about writing from him than I did from anyone else. Years later, I sent him a copy of my book when it came out. My worst fear was that he’d write an A minus on it and send it back. He didn’t, thankfully.

How Horse Showing Taught Me New Ways to Measure Success

It has taken me much longer than I like to admit to find other ways to measure success. Showing horses has taught me that one can measure success in ways that have nothing to do with grades or ribbons or buckles.

I did not begin showing until I was 30. I was fortunate to have a very seasoned, competitive, show horse early on in my horse showing career. Tiffany Two Spots, who turns 25 years old today, was/is the kindest, most generous horse in the world. The less a rider knew, the harder Tiffany tried. Such characteristics are rare among horses. Not once, in the years I competed with Tiffany, did she ever cheat in the show pen. Cheating in the show pen can be anything from resistance or misbehavior to not focusing on the job at hand. I don’t think the idea of cheating ever even occurred to her.

With Tiffany, although there were ups and downs as in any competitive sport, winning came easily. Tiffany made me think I was a pretty good rider. Indeed, we did very well together until I retired her at 19–she was a 7 time World Champion with many Reserve World Champion titles to her name also.

Then, I bought a couple of young horses. My youngsters quickly taught me that I was not as good a rider as Tiffany had led me to believe. Whereas Tiffany said to me, in her own way, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this, Just sit back and let me take care of us,” the youngsters said, “Hey lady, you’re on your own. I’ve got my own stuff going on.” It was humbling, to say the least. I realized that, in the interest of my own sanity, I had to find ways other than winning to measure success in the show pen.

Role Model

My friend Dr. Christine Woodford would be the one to teach me that. Christine, a veterinarian who is certified in Animal Chiropractic and Acupuncture, is one of the most talented riders and disciplined people I’ve ever met. She has enjoyed enormous success both in and out of the show pen. She showed her beloved gelding, Jackson, for a long time, earning many World and Reserve titles along the way. Those wins didn’t always come easily though.

You see, Jackson could not trot to save his life. Christine would be the first person to tell you that. However, Jackson had what we call “try” and “heart” that made up for his lack-luster trot. Christine also has tons of “try” and “heart” and, most important, resilience, and so she and Jackson enjoyed a long and successful career.

Christine Woodford with Jackson and Rose

Make no mistake, though. Christine and Jackson had their fair share of struggles. Trail, a class in which the rider and horse navigate a series of poles arranged in a pattern on the ground at all three gaits without touching them and with style, didn’t come easily for Christine. Showmanship did not come easily for Jackson. Yet, Christine worked and worked and worked until eventually she and Jackson won a Reserve World title in Showmanship and a World Champion title in Trail. Those wins didn’t happen because Christine set out to win. They happened because Christine paid attention to the little things day in, and day out and because she worked her tail off.

Understand that Christine likes to win. Who doesn’t? However, she does not show horses so that she can win. She shows horses because she loves horses. She also loves the challenge of learning to excel with her equine partner in a range of events. What I admire about Christine is that she never enters the show pen without at least one or two very specific goals in mind. Often, I’ve heard her say that her goal is to “give clear signals” to Jackson or “to exhale” before transitioning between gaits in a pattern.”

Sometimes Stuff is Just Plain HARD!

When Christine exits the show pen after her performance, no matter how she has placed, Christine assesses whether she achieved her specific goals for that class. Sometimes she does; sometimes she doesn’t. One of our favorite “Christine stories” is about when she entered a bareback class on Rose, her young mare. Her goal was to keep her heels down. As she left the arena, she asked the trainer, “Did I keep my heels down?” “Nope” he replied. “Darn!” Christine exclaimed, “That s***’s f****** hard!” Understand that Christine is NOT a potty mouth, which is part of why her response was so funny.

Humor aside, Christine did not beat herself up for not keeping her heels down. She did not turn her not-down-heels into evidence of a character flaw on her part. She did not blame her horse. She did not blame her trainer. She did not cry. She did not pout. She just moved on to the next class, set her next goal, and committed to continue working on keeping her heels down.

Christine measures success in the show pen, and elsewhere I think, in a very calculated fashion. Long ago, she decided what mindset would be most conducive to her growth and development as a rider and as a person. Then, she went about the business of practicing the behaviors that would create that mindset until that set of behaviors became habit.

I am thankful that I have people like Christine in my life to show me other ways to measure success. Christine never fails to encourage me even when I feel like I’ve failed and respond like a butt. I admit that measuring success on the basis of anything that isn’t particularly concrete, such as buckles or placings, doesn’t come easily to me. For me, “that s***’s f******* hard!” The more I practice, though, the more I enjoy competition and the better I feel about myself in many realms of life.

Sometimes You Win By Just Getting On

Take yesterday. My mare, Bree, and I were competing at horse show in Mississippi in the Amateur Walk Trot division. This is a division in which the riders do not lope or canter the horses in any class. There are myriad reasons for competing in the division.

I am competing in the division this year because my confidence was badly shaken after having a fall last summer, which resulted in a broken back and shoulder. Physically, I’ve recovered 100%, but mentally, I’ve got a long way to go. Although the fall was the result of an equipment failure–Bree did absolutely nothing wrong–every time I climb on her back, I panic. I worry that something will happen to cause another fall. If Bree reacts to a sound or a sudden movement, however small her reaction, I panic and usually grab the saddle horn like a five-year old. It’s not pretty. Loping, for the time being, is out of the question.

My accident happened in August. I started riding again in October. Since then, my trainer has warmed up Bree for me. This makes me feel safer because, if she has any wind in her sails, it is gone before I get on. Yesterday, however, my trainer asked me to warm up Bree myself before our English classes. He had a lot of other riders and horses to get ready. I thought that would be fine. However, when I went to put my foot in the stirrup to mount, I panicked.

My heart starting beating quickly, my chest grew tight, and I started sweating. My eyes filled with tears. I felt really stupid and embarrassed. I stood there beside the mounting block for what felt like forever, putting my foot in and taking it out of the stirrup, trying to work up the courage to mount. Finally, the trainer came over and asked me if everything was okay. The tears that sat in my eyes slid down my cheeks and I said, “I’m afraid to get on because you’ve not ridden her yet.” He said, “okay, hang on. I’ll get my spurs.” For whatever reason, I replied, “no, that’s okay. I have to do this.” And I got on.

Invisible Victory

Bree was a little fresh when we started to warm up. I felt like I was on the edge of a panic attack while we were riding. Still, lo and behold, I did not die and nothing bad happened. We went on to do very well in all our classes and won the High Point Amateur Walk Trot award at the end of the show.

The wins felt good, of course, but they were not the best part of the day. After the show, the trainer asked me what my favorite part of the show was. I replied, “When I rode Bree without you having ridden her even though I was scared to death.” To me, warming up Bree myself was the most important measure of my success at the horse show. No one else may care and hardly anyone else even knows that warming her up myself was a huge deal for me. Nonetheless, I know and that is what matters.

I am thankful that I am able to take part in activities like horse showing and Crossfit where measuring success takes myriad forms. Learning to measure my own success without relying on grades or prizes has been liberating in ways I never imagined. In fact, finding new ways to measure success has allowed me to experience more fully the joy that ought to come from competition and challenge.

I think most of us have “head trash” that, from time to time, gets in the way of our evaluations of our own performances in many realms. How do you measure success? Where did you learn to measure success in the ways that you do? What lessons have you learned along the way? Please share your story with me!

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As always, thank you for reading. I appreciate you.

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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.