Wanting To Help: Is It A Basic Human Instinct?

I felt really self conscious after publishing last week’s post, worried I’d been too sappy. And then you all showed up, sharing resources, ideas, anguish, and personal stories. Thank you. Thank you for sharing so much and for making me feel so much less alone.

I’m still reading, viewing, and considering all that you sent me and will share as I learn more. For now, I just have two stories for you.

Right after publishing last week’s post, I started reading The Martian by Andy Weir. It’s good, and you should read it before the movie comes out in October.

It’s about a lot of things, but one plot line illustrates how much good people can achieve  when they’re motivated and dedicated to a shared goal. It also shows how people, institutions, and countries that typically don’t get along can set issues aside long enough to do good work together.

I thought of all of you and this blog when I read these paragraphs:

Human beings have “a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true.

If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do.”

I hope that’s true, that it’s a basic human instinct to help each other, and that the caring individuals not only outnumber “the assholes,” but that the collected good work has more impact than the negative. Which, truthfully, is hard to believe right now, but I’m hoping. Plus, all the more reason to up my game, right?

So there’s that to ponder. Then, one day while out for a walk, I started daydreaming.

I let myself imagine that the business I’m slowly crafting would be a great success and that I’d have resources to pass along to others. Who would I give money to? How might I give back? Homelessness and hunger are two things that worry me the most in the world, so I thought of that. But then I thought of other artists and writers and helping them pay the bills while they do their work.

Then, my daydream shifted to a simple, good, and practical idea that I can start right now, that helps remedy homelessness, that supports artists and writers, and that involves all of you, too.

In Portland, there’s a newspaper called Street Roots. It’s a weekly paper that creates jobs and raises money to deal with poverty and homelessness.

I am ashamed to admit this, but many years ago, I tried to give a Street Roots vendor some money but told him I didn’t want the paper. I never took the time to read it, and I didn’t want to waste the paper. He insisted I take it, saying, “You can pay extra if you want, but you have to take an issue and read it.”

I feel like a jerk now, because it recently dawned on me –not only do the articles take on issues of poverty and homelessness, most of the writing, photographs, drawings, interviews, and comics are created by people who are or have been homeless.

Telling the vendor I never get around to reading it was incredibly rude! I mean, can you imagine someone giving you money for your book but not wanting your actual work? This was one of my most horrible moments. But now, I am slightly less blind and have a plan.

I am going to buy the paper somewhat regularly, pay extra, READ IT, and look for insights to share in an occasional blog post. I’ll be contributing to a well-respected publication and resource, and I’ll be reading and sharing work by other artists and writers. Win-win.

It’s a simple plan and a little one, but it’s a start, and it feels good.

– – – – — –  Okay, I was going to end here, but I talked with my mom just before finishing this post, and I have to tell you one more story about individuals working to ease the suffering in the world.  – – – – – –

My mom mentioned that her neighbor volunteers with the Red Cross. This woman flies all over the country, right into the heart of physical, emotional, and mental trauma, to do the work she’s been trained to do. She told my mom that it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t know anyone when she arrives; they’ve all been trained in their roles so well that they work in harmony right away, getting things done.

Here’s an example of one person who has retired to a financially comfortable life, but rather than kicking it on a fancy yacht (for all I know, she might do that too), she has devoted endless hours to rigorous Red Cross training and leaves her home for weeks at a time to tend to the damaged, wounded, and scared.

Maybe the next question in this conversation is what is it that motivates people to sacrifice time, money, and comfort to help others?

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Something Has Got To Be Better Than Nothing, Right?

I almost always end up feeling overwhelmed after reading or listening to the news. I want to “fix it” all myself: end the kidnapping and trafficking of children (or any human for that matter), end poverty, relieve illness and suffering, stop all violence and hate, and abolish addictions. That’s my to-do list should anyone give me a magic wand.

But, of course, I can’t fix any of it myself, and that leaves me feeling helpless. Lydia Yuknavitch (author of The Chronology of Water and the just-released The Small Backs of Children) captured this anguish in a Facebook post:

i wonder who we have become…”sixth mass extinction” doesn’t seem to stop anyone from enjoying their iced lattes or packing the theaters and pools. endless murder of people of color doesn’t seem to put a dent in our summer plans. i wonder, are we waiting for a super hero or something? …  what will it take for us to realize the problem is in us too? every. single. one. of. us. it’s not “out there” exclusively. It’s also IN us all: the problem as well as the possible radical change…my life looks different to me lately. i was thinking about changing it and wondering what that would look like–maybe writing and teaching my heart out in an effort to wake a few people up is too puny. maybe recycling like a madwoman and owning an electric car and not buying shit made by slave laborers is too quiet. maybe pouring my hopes and fears into making art that agitates is still not enough. i’m thinking hard about this so i thought i’d mention it in case i’m not the only one willing to. i used to think things like, “well, the universe has always shown me a path…” but maybe that old school zen hippie feminist openness is also a form of passivity. … i wonder what we are waiting for. the bullet to come?  –Lidia Yuknavitch on Facebook on June 20, 2015.

I’m always wondering what I can do, how I can at least avoid contributing to another’s suffering, and how I can ease others’ suffering.

Then, I read “The Greatest Good” by Derek Thompson at The Atlantic. He blends a compelling personal story with research into how an individual can have the most direct positive impact on another’s life with a financial donation.

The entire article is worth a few reads, but it was encouraging to learn just how much impact one person’s efforts can have. One man, for example, raised enough money to pay for life-long treatments for a child severely burned in a fire. She’s now 18, and he now runs one of the most effective relief agencies helping prevent malaria.

But here’s the part that really hit me: When compared to the world’s poor, most middle-class Americans are in the wealthy 1% and giving up a small portion of income can make a huge impact when re-distributed to the right place/person:

“If you earn more than $52,000 per year, then, speaking globally, you are the 1 percent,” MacAskill writes. Some research suggests that the doubling one’s income, whether you make $500 a year or $50,000 a year, roughly raises one’s happiness by a similar amount. This implies that if a middle-class American family were to transfer one percent of its income directly to an Indian rice farmer, his estimated happiness would double.

It’s not like each concerned individual can be paired with each individual needing help. But, the article challenged my feeling of helplessness. I’m still pondering all of this, but here’s where I’m at right now:

I really must not discount the impact of one person’s actions over time.

I’m back to recognizing the power of daily practice, only this time, instead of art, I’m seeing it in terms of how we live our lives.

Say I live to be 100 years old (my goal). In that time, who knows how much money I might be able to donate? How much plastic I might be able to keep out of the waste stream. How much water, and electricity, and gas I might conserve. What leaders I might support with a vote or dollars. What information or ideas I might have learned the hard way and be able to pass on so someone else lives a little better a little earlier in life. What might I be able to share? How many people might I meet and befriend, so more of us feel accepted and less alone?

Although I can’t “fix it,” it can’t hurt for me to live as gently and responsibly as possible, can it? And, I suppose I’ll forever be adapting what “gently” and “responsibly” mean as I learn more and learn to do better.

True–some Really Big Actions are needed right now to address violence, racism, sexism, addiction, greed, poverty.

But one person’s actions do matter. And how many more individuals are in the world doing the same? How many in the world are doing so much more? —That’s the news station I need: reporting from around the world on groups and individuals doing their best to improve the planet and people’s lives. Is there such a channel?

What do you all think? What do you do if you end up feeling helpless? What ways do you contribute to the “good of all”? Or how do you lessen your impact on the earth or economy? Is there a website or publication or news channel you go to to get inspired? To learn what others are doing?

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Practicing Confidence–It Can Only Get Better, Right?

When I was 25, I found myself sitting on a sticky, green wrestling mat in a fluorescent-lighted gym, attending my first yoga class. I was a graduate student, and although I knew  absolutely no other student in the room, I knew that any one of them could end up in one of the writing classes I’d been assigned to teach. This made me extremely self conscious. I mean, who wants to see their writing instructor in sweat pants doing who-knows-what kinds of poses, exposing who-knows-what parts of her anatomy that ought better stay tucked out of sight?

One week into the class, I faced one of the worst fears I didn’t even know I had: the teacher told us to pair up.

“Oh my god,” I thought to myself, “I do not want to partner with anyone else. I don’t know who to partner with. Everyone’s looking at someone else. I’m going to end up alone in the middle of this ugly room. Oh my gawd!”

But the teacher’s voice broke through my hysteria, “Practice confidence,” she said, “This is an opportunity to practice confidence.”

Until then, I didn’t know you could practice a trait. Either you’re born confident or not, right? Either you have a bold nature or a cautions one. Genetics determines if you’re quiet or loud, right? You can fake it and get by, but you can’t become something you’re not, can you?

Well, apparently, you can, and it differs from “fake it till you make it.” The instructor did not say “fake it,” she said “practice,” as if some element of confidence exists in all of us, and it’s just a matter of working at it. Like running. I have the same muscles most humans have, I can run a few miles, but I’ll not likely ever run a marathon. I have some element of running ability that I can practice, whether or not I ever excel at it, yes? Okay, so same with confidence.

This idea has stuck with me over the years. It’s not that I lack any ounce of faith in myself, but when it comes to writing and art … when it comes to talking about my writing and art to anyone other than myself … well, I have barely a shred of confidence in this area.

Nevertheless, as you know, I’m slowly but steadily developing a creative business, which is forcing me to practice confidence. I had the perfect opportunity recently at the Garden Party and Special Sale for Vivid Element Studio, a lush line of clothes for women designed by Amy Daileda.

In spite of the peaceful backyard setting, the handcrafted clothes on display, and the gracious designer, I felt sweat trickling down my spine as Amy’s inclusive and engaging friends brought me into conversation by saying, “So, you’re a writer?”

The question shocked me, as if they’d discovered my deepest secret. Why should this startle me so much? I’ve been practicing writing since age eight, taught it for 15 years, have published here and there over time, and have been working at writing with mad determination for the last year.

I managed to smile, nod, and obey the voice in my head, “Practice being confident, here, right now, go, do it!”

At first, I wasn’t so bad. For example, I managed to say “I write a blog,” rather than the more habitual and comfortable, “I just write a little blog…?” But on my way out, it was as if I’d fatigued my confidence muscles, and I heard myself confessing to one woman about my creative efforts, “I’m trying to be confident about this!”

Ha! Well, it gets worse, or funnier, depending on your point of view.

I had a second party to go to that afternoon. Two parties in one day. When I told my mom that I’m the least likely person to be invited to two parties in one day and even less likely to attend both, she understood instantly and said, “Well, at least you get it all out of the way at once.” She knows me–I am at my best when nestled into the corner of a sofa with a library book.

At the second party, a former teaching colleague asked, “So, what are you doing now?”

I thought to myself, “This is it! A chance to redeem myself. I will be better at being confident this time!” So, I spoke boldly and said I’d be opening a shop online in the fall to sell my creative work. Then? Silence from my colleague. Neutral expression on his face. No reaction, and instant panic from me.

I was probably wound a bit tight from having already been extroverted that day, and I suspect I waited only a quarter of a second for him to respond, but there I was, desperate to impress him, to get some sort of affirmation that I am living a life of purpose, which is not exactly his job to affirm this, but I guess this is what my brain wanted because the next thing I hear is myself elaborating, “Yep! Plan to have things to sell by October … even applying for my LLC … Yep, the real deal …”

Thank god another friend cut me off with a simple question about my website because I swear I was about to say, “And I’ll be selling real dragon toe nail clippings. Really! Be impressed! I mean, who can do that? Toe nail clippings? From dragons? Seriously!”

Well, it’s all in a day’s work, right? I mean, I did practice confidence. I wasn’t particularly good at it, but isn’t that the point of practice–to get better? I managed to think of my creative projects as legitimate work, rather than quivering at whatever extreme standards my nervous mind conjures when it hears “writer” or “artist.”

By the way, that yoga class where we had to partner with someone? It was fine the first day, but later in the term, I found myself facing the crotch of a man wearing too-thin long johns as I supported his handstand practice. That moment required something other than confidence, but I prevailed and have practiced yoga ever since.

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Failing to Fail, a Disappointing Success

I don’t even know how to write this post. It’s like my brain has been turned upside down, making left right and right left.

The “rustic tarts” failed. They came out as cupcakes, like the recipe originally intended. So maybe they succeeded? I have no idea how to say this–I failed at trying to deliberately fail. I set out to ruin the cupcake recipe a second time to end up with the “rustic tarts” people loved, but it didn’t work. I made them the same way I did when they failed the first time, but when I pulled the first tray out of the oven, they looked right. Errrr, well, wrong for what I was aiming for.

So, rather than prying them gently from the pan to keep the jelly balanced in the middle of the cupcake, I dumped them roughly onto a cooling rack, thinking the top would flatten and pull away, leaving the gooey center for me to scrape out and squash on top. That’s how the rustic tarts came into being.

But no, the rough treatment left 12 perfectly plump and cohesive cupcakes. I rolled them over onto their bottoms and sighed. One tray left to go. Will it be like last time, and one half fail and one half work?

Nope. Second tray, same thing: cupcakes.

So now, I have a bunch of cupcakes that would have looked fancier with liners, but I did not use liners because that was one of the ways I made the recipe fail the first time, when I wasn’t aiming to fail.

When I took a drawing class from my friend and former colleague Dave Andersen, he told a story about hitting a low point in his painting career, and to launch himself out of it, he decided to try to fail by making the worst, dumbest, stupidest decisions he could while painting, going against all good practice. If symmetry seemed right, he’d make it lopsided. If smooth brush strokes seemed kosher, he’d smear the paint, toss it, glop it wherever it landed.

This approach resulted in some masterpieces and a theme that received a lot of attention, praise, sales, and built his reputation as a great painter. He still sounds dumbfounded when he tells the story.

Fruit Boy

“Fruit Boy” by David Andersen

So what’s the universe trying to teach us here? Wake up each day and try to do a BAD job? Aim to fail? But in aiming to fail, find success?

When I was teaching college, I discovered a distinct, but not uncommon, kind of student: The student so afraid of failure that they aimed to fail. They did whatever they had to do to fail, even when instructors like me gave second, third, fourth chances.

Why?

If you intentionally fail, you can say, “Oh, that F? No big deal. I didn’t even try. I barely even went to class.”

If you put in effort, even a little, but especially a lot, and you fail, what can you say? “Oh, that F? I tried, but I still failed. I must be as dumb as I think I am. (Or as everyone else has said I am.) I suck at this.”

It huuuurts to attempt something, to risk showing others that you care, that you’re putting some heart and muscle into it, and then fail. It seems, at first, a lot safer and easier not to try at all.

Well, cupcakes/rustic tarts are no big deal. I’m not hurt by this failure, the wedding guests should be none the wiser, and although I don’t yet feel this way, I think the maid-of-honor was right, “Whether you get it wrong or right, sounds like a winner.” It’s just that the failed cupcakes were more interesting than the successful cupcakes. I guess there’s one clear lesson I can take away: sometimes failures result in a more interesting product than what you’d been trying to create.

Which is also true of more painful failures. Sometimes, a student would earn an “F” in one of my classes, and then show up the the next term to try again. At first this mystified me. They hadn’t taken it personally, weren’t mad at me, and were both brave and humble enough to show up again with a fresh notebook and give it another go.

These students would speak up in class and say things like, “It’s true, you really do have to write more than one draft and revise. I learned that when I failed this class last term.”

This motivated (or terrified) others in the class who stepped up their game, and the student who once failed the first time now becomes a leader in the class, quick to ask questions, to humble his/herself and ask for help from me or another student, and quick to openly celebrate a solid grade and encouraging comments on a paper. It’s as if that “F” showed them the worst, and now, asking questions in class and letting us see their effort doesn’t scare them at all.

Rather than attempting to ruin another batch of cupcakes in order to get rustic tarts, I’ll accept the cupcakes for what they are. I mean, they are what they were originally supposed to be, right? The dollop of jam in the center should surprise guests as well as the hint of nutmeg in the cake, and they look wedding-ly with a sprinkling of white powdered sugar on top.

Meanwhile, I’ll be contemplating all the other ways I might aim to fail … in order to succeed. First up–the query letter I’ve been trying to write to literary agents because aiming to succeed has resulted in stiff, self-conscious, vague writing so far. Can’t hurt to try writing an awful one, can it?

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Rustic Tarts: Failing Deliberately

A few months ago, I made cupcakes for a party: jelly-filled cupcakes. I’d made them before, but I measured and mixed thoughtfully, wanting guests to have something special.

The first of two trays failed. Everything went wrong: the top half spread out and got crunchy, it pulled away from the bottom half where the jelly had settled heavily, and the bottom stayed stuck.

Amazingly, I did not freak out. I had no time to freak out. My kiddo would be napping just a few minutes longer, the party was the next day, and this was it. So, I dumped each “cupcake” upside down onto a tray, scraped out the innards and bottom, patted them onto what should have been the top of the cupcake but now served as the base, and sprinkled powdered sugar on top.

The party is family and friends, I reminded myself, they will accept me and my failed cupcakes for what they are. –This is a new realization for me. Although I adore my friends and family for exactly who they are, I’ve always been acutely aware of my many shortcomings, tried to hide them, and assumed people liked me because I managed to be nice enough and pass as a tolerable human. Good gawd.

I ran out of time to make a sign for the failed cupcakes saying something like “Failed cupcake experiment. For the brave and courageous, only.” Instead, I put them on the table with everything else.

Maybe because of that, lined up with perfectly round olives, square crackers, and a tray of normal cupcakes, people did not perceive these as a failure. In fact, they were the most popular treat, and I got the most questions about them. I told everyone the truth, but even so, there was only one left after the party, and that was because someone saved it for me to try. At one point, I passed the dining room and heard someone say, “I think they’re rustic tarts.”

The failed cupcake was pretty good, I have to say. More gooey and chewy than the correct cupcakes, but when are cupcakes supposed to gooey and chewy?

Well, here’s the thing — my cousin gets married soon and has asked me to bring a vegan dessert to the reception. His fiance (both of them were at this party) loved my “rustic tarts” and has suggested a few times that I make them for the wedding.

She knows they were a failure, but wants them anyway.

I’ve come up with at least 12 other options, but I like her, and I want to bring what sounds good to her, but I’m as nervous about trying to fail as I am about trying not to fail.

Can I “ruin” the jelly-filled cupcakes again? Can I fail in the same way? How is it possible I’m aiming for failure in order to succeed?

I lamented about this to the maid-of-honor who replied, “Whether you get it wrong or right, sounds like a winner.”

So, I guess the next step in this long journey of becoming more confident, optimistic, and accepting, is to ruin some cupcakes.

I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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A Slump, Some Whine, and An Award.

Ugh. Do you ever write a blog post and then delete it? I want to delete my previous post because it’s so perky and “can-do,” and I’ve been in a creative slump ever since publishing it.

Yesterday, I ran into a friend at the grocery store. She’s an accomplished writer, and she asked me how creative work was going. I dove straight to the truth, “Awful. I’ve been in a slump for at least a week.”

She smiled, nodded, totally related, and we commiserated in the produce section, laughing about how we pour our creative mind into everything else, my neatly-lettered grocery list that I’d drafted once and then re-written, for example.

“You could write about the slump,” she suggested. And I’d wanted to, but I didn’t want to sound like I was whining or asking you all to feel sorry for me. At the same time, I don’t want to be all sunshine and roses when there are days, occasionally weeks, of drought and malaise.

I’m not sure what these slumps are. They surprise me every time. Just a sudden arrival of … hmmm, what is it? Self doubt? Resistance? Fear? Easier just not to do any of this kind of feeling, but then I end up doing laundry and stacking everything by color and shape … sculptures of underwear piled on top of the dryer. Then I think, “That would be fun to draw,” and then that idea feels totally laborious and exhausting, so I go back to folding laundry.

I suppose this is part of the creative process? It’s just so much easier to keep all my ideas in my head where they are perfect … perfect because they’re not concrete but rotating and changing as my ideas shift.

This first storybook, for example, has taken a lot of work and time, which I don’t mind at all, but it’s also showing me just how much more I have to learn and do just for this one little book. I guess doubt sets in (“Is it worth it?”) to protect me from the hard work that is not guaranteed to be a success.

Geez. Is it really about success and failure? It’s not like my creative ideas result in anything huge whether they succeed or fail — no one’s lives get damaged or saved, so why is the idea of failure so insidious and ever-present? Or, is it something else? I truly don’t know, but typing this makes me feel more confident that I will eventually push through this and get back to work more cheerfully.

Ironically, as I’ve been in a dreary fog, a blogger I met through the April A-to-Z Challenge nominated me for an award. I’ve felt too “blah” to post it here, a little embarrassed. But I know if I’d nominated someone, and they’d ignored it, I’d feel badly, so I’ll end this post all “sunshine and roses”:

real-neat-blog-award

Solveig nominated me as well as Lrod, Ula at Confessions of a Broccoli Addict, S.D. Gates, and Christina at the Wordy Rose for this award, and I am supposed to answer a few questions. Thank you Solveig for thinking of me and being such an encouraging reader of my blog!

1. As a child what did you want to become? A writer. Always a writer. And I wanted to draw, but I didn’t know what to call it. “Artist” didn’t sound right at the time, and I didn’t know what an “illustrator” was. So: writer and drawer.

2. What piece of your own writing are you most proud of? Ummmm…. Okay, honestly, maybe a personal essay about my cousin starting college in his late 40s after his mom (my aunt) died. This was ages ago, but it was published in a national journal about teaching, and I am so happy his struggles might have served to inspire someone else. He did not finish school and died not too many years later. I’m glad to have captured a portrait of him during a moment of aspiration and determination, even though he was terrified. (It’s still available in ERIC or ProQuest, to my surprise! Nouns and Verbs: Feeling the Love.)

3. If you were an animal what would you be, and why?  A sea turtle or tortoise. I aspire to their “slow-but-steady” progress, calm demeanor, and long-long-long lives.

4. If you were stranded on a lonely island (there will be food and drink there) what/who would you take with you (3 things at the most)?  Easy: husband, son, and books.

5. Is there some advice that you would like to share? Ummm, ummm, ummm. I’m totally stuck here. How, about this — you lovely readers can post advice if you’d like, about anything, but especially about your creative lives (whether it’s crocheting sweaters, arranging flower bulbs “just so” in your planter boxes, or performance art–how do you do it??).

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Committing to Change

I may never know why so many writers and artists resist working on their craft. We writers often slog our way to our desks and force ourselves to write, turning it into a dreary business. For whatever reason resistance happens, I’ve learned I’m not alone in experiencing it.

Recently, my friend Robin Vada and I taught a workshop designed to help writers free themselves from the burdens of resistance, doubt, fear, and procrastination. We combined guided meditation with writing prompts. We knew something special was happening early in the 90-minute session because everyone trusted us enough to close their eyes and follow our directions for breathing, stretching, and visualizing.

When we shifted to writing, the room filled with a productive silence as everyone bent over their notebooks and wrote. Some students melted into the page, their bodies curving toward the desk. For others, the page pushed back, so they leaned away from the desk, closed their eyes, took a few breaths, and bent in again, gaining a few more sentences and a little less push back from the page.

When we asked for them to read us some of their writing or describe their experience, I identified with all of their creative struggles. I realized that fear and resistance come easily to me, they are familiar and well practiced; whereas calm and confidence feel difficult.

Where does the fear come from? What is there to fear about creating stories, paintings, or music?

One student answered my unspoken question. She said resistance comes from fear of change because:

Committing to a creative project means committing to changing ourselves.

This rang powerfully true for me. It’s not easy to learn, to stretch, to risk, to endure failure and bounce back. I’m not even sure in what ways I change, but I am sure she is right.

Is this true for you? Do you resist getting started on your creative work? Do you think the creative process changes you? In what ways?

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