Turtle Wisdom

44,881 words | NaNoWriMo Participant 2013I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for the first time this year. My intention was to write 1,600-2000 words for six to seven days per week month-long, and I finished November with a total of 44,881 words. My NaNoWriMo total didn’t make me a “winner” by the rules of the 50-000 word challenge, but it did give me a structure for re-engaging my research consistently. I’ll be taking that accomplishment—and its momentum—with me into the upcoming year.

When I finished writing up my doctoral study in 2012, I wanted a way to tangibly mark the achievement and capture the lesson learned with something that would outlast the graduation pomp and smiles from visiting relatives.

After some thought, I settled on these pottery turtles.

My two turtles come from the hands of New Mexican Navajo artists Tom Vail Jr. (white-grey with rainbow) and Johnny Williams (glazed black). For the last three years of my program, I spent a few days retreating in New Mexico each fall, and these pieces remind me of the state’s artists, peoples, and land.

They also remind me of wisdom strains that I’d learned as a child and promptly forgotten through the years:

“Slow and steady wins the race…”

“The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong…”

“She that endures to the end shall be saved…”

and then the most prosaic, from one of my research advisors:

“Do a little bit every day.”

It was that last piece of counsel that helped me most through my research topic, around grad student fatigue and despite various family and personal derailments. It kept me current for most of NaNoWriMo, and it’ll also keep me on task with my goals for the coming year.

We’re still a few days away from the calendar turn. What goals do you have for your next 12 months? How can you break them down into manageable pieces? How will you “do a little bit every day”?

Her church dean read the parable of the vineyard. And the children at Vacation Bible School protested the rules of the game.

“Grace is not attractive,” she thought. “It’s not fair!” [Watch the video.]

Once upon a time, I shared Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability and shame with some relatives. The blowback I got in return was epic.

I may never know whether they were reacting to the content. Or to her casual self-effacement. Or to her language (the Work of the People site flags this clip with a “language warning”).

Some respondents thought her talk profane, as if there is anything in the universe more sacred than the vulnerable, intentional connection of two made in the image of God.

And dismissing her could even have been a proxy for dismissing me, the niece who refused shame and preferred integrity. I don’t know.

From Susan Morgan Ostapkowicz's Painting "The Outsider"

From Susan Morgan Ostapkowicz’s Painting “The Outsider”

But listening to “Grace isn’t attractive” today made me wonder if the blowback wasn’t about any of these things; if instead it was a kind of resistance to what Brown points to here: what’s “fair” and what’s “just,” who earns rights to be “in the circle” or defined “out,” and who gets to “own” the group and keep others from messing it up…

Fundamentalist religion has very strong ideas about this—about fairness, justice, and the boundaries of good and deviant. It also resists and shuts down challenges to those ideas, regardless of their source. It can’t stand the idea that maybe it isn’t the gatekeeper and maybe its understanding isn’t the measure.

If you’ve ever read one of the parables attributed to Jesus and completely disagreed with the punchline of the story, you’ll understand what Brown is talking about when she says: “It’s not fair! I still don’t get it; I still don’t like it! I like stuff you can earn.”

Grace is polarizing. It’s horrific. And it’s exactly what we need in a culture that’s been stripped of it.

On Dodging Grief

My friend J Mase III, poet, writer, and co-founder of the weekly #qfaith Twitter chat, wrote an article about grief this week. He’d asked his followers about how others react to grief, what they say, and what we wish others said.

Two weeks ago, a friend of mine died. We met at our church 4 years ago; he was an usher and deacon, and his wife often sat in our row. The two of them were and are among the sweetest and most grounded people I know; easy-going, open-hearted, travel-lovers, and wonderfully matched as a couple. While she recovered from breast cancer, he developed a terminal disease, underwent a series of conventional and experimental treatments, and then, about a week and a half ago, went to sleep and never woke.

We all knew it was coming. We just didn’t know when. We saw his suits hanging more loosely around his shoulders and a shadow form in his cheeks—but it was easy to deny impending death because he so thoroughly distracted us with a life that he lived the hell out of. His smile was perennial and his capacity for graciousness, kindness, and other-centeredness was undimmed by either declining health or increasing pain.

I can’t imagine anyone who knew him and won’t miss him. I also don’t know anyone who knew him who’s not glad he’s now beyond the reach of cancer.

Grief is a sneaky thing at times like this. Mainstream culture gives us a straightforward protocol for grief: for family, you get this much time to deny, cry, or pout. With friends, that much. For people with whom you had a social network in common, maybe a little. With celebrities like Nelson Mandela or Paul Walker, follow the news cycle without being maudlin, and then move on.

Who makes up these rules? They don’t fit for me. They don’t match my relationships and I don’t live by them.

Shame and belonging researcher Brené Brown has a gift for explaining how our responses to the vulnerabilities of others can open up our relationships or abridge them. The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) animated part of a talk on empathy in which she describes how sympathy falls short, can be dismissive, and is often about assuaging the discomfort of the speaker rather than the person in grief, sadness, or pain:

One of the things we do sometimes in the face of very difficult conversations is we try to make things better. If I share something with you that’s very difficult, I’d rather you say, “Phew! I don’t even know what to say right now; I’m just so glad you told me.”

Because the truth is rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection. —Brené Brown

So here are 5 things I told J that I wished folk said when I was grieving:

“I don’t know what to say, so I’m going to be quiet. I love you.”

“I’ll only tell you my grief story if you ask—and you don’t have to.”

“Wanna play some pool? Can pick you up at 8.”

“Doesn’t matter that you’re not grieving a relative. It doesn’t hurt any less.”

“You can feel whatever you feel around me. I’m listening.”

Sometimes, I said, people fill the silences and the space with their noise, awkwardness, and fear-projected-outward, missing opportunities to just be. Not everyone can stand the light of vulnerability or loss or hope, and so when they can’t, yet show up in your space anyway, managing them while managing your own grief becomes an unnecessary and burdensome mission.

There are also some who can stand that light, who can bear it, who will sit with others through sadness without fixing, meddling, or minimizing. Are they rare souls? Does it matter?

I appreciate those I know. And I hope this year to be more of one for the people around me.

Check out J’s article at the Huffington Post: Rules for grieving in the New Year—or Grieving like it’s 1999. What grieving rules or customs do you live by? Share in the comments below.

A Writing November

Cartoon of open newspaper with "Correction" advertisement: "The Downing St memo seems to be at odds with pretty much anything you remember seeing and hearing in the media in the runup to the Iraq war.  Your memory is in error. We regret your mistake."

(c) Tom Toles (2005) | “The First Draft of the Rewrite of History”

I’ve decided to participate in this year’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo 2013), and will be using the 50,000 word-challenge to reboot my research on the British executive branch’s structure, values, personnel, and communications during the 18 months before the UK- and US invaded Iraq.*

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the March 2003 invasion and the 8th year since I began to study how the Blair administration rendered Saddam Hussein’s Iraq “non-compliant” with international protocols on weapons of mass destruction and an “imminent” threat to the UK national interest.

I’ve already written and presented about this case for other communication academics (Popular Culture Association, 2008; Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 2009), and I’ve also written a 150-page doctoral study about it with a bibliography nearly 25 pages long. I may write for these readers again in the future, but not next month.

November is about writing about the British executive branch, weapons of mass destruction, secrecy, freedom of information, and civil servants, not for other academics and not as part of a degree program, but for members of the public: people like you who are savvy and curious, who don’t necessarily know a lot about the details of this case, and who care about good governance and want to read high-quality, engaging content about it.

I’m not going to write and revise next  month, though; I’m just going to write. By the end of the month, I’ll know whether I have it in me to turn this year-old baby into a book in 2014.

My goals for November are simple enough, and I’m declaring them here to increase the risk:

  1. Write ~2,000 words six days each week for 30 days, or a minimum of 1,670 words daily.
  2. Focus on generating these 50,000-50,100 words, rather than fretting about whether they are good words.
  3. Remember how much I love this project and wonder why it’s taken me so long post-graduation to return to it.

If you’d like to track my progress through November, there’ll be a word count widget in the right column of my homepage. And if you have a fiction or non-fiction book in you too, then you still have a day to sign up! As of tonight, nearly 190,000 other writers are waiting for you.

Expect an update on this from me in a few weeks.


* This intention marks me as a NaNo Rebel. Good luck to all the novelists too!

In 1970 the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1999 the top three skills in demand were teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. We need schools that are developing these skills. —Linda Darling-Hammond, National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future

Read more, from Wired Business.

In order to organize society, we create institutions, we build buildings, we train millions of people to perform very specialized activities. We make endless forms to record and report what we are doing. We create armies of people to supervise other people, and of course the supervisors themselves have to be supervised as well.

These systems acquire a life of their own. We seem to forget that they were created around an idea. All systems… are creations of our unique way of looking at the world, our reality. Systems are expressions of our beliefs. —robert wolff, Original Wisdom