Discipline: Study

A key to any discipline and to the subject itself is study without being an expert. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about the importance of being a beginner. Discispline can be a study of absolutely anything. And it always starts with a beginning.

The change in my boys as they’ve grown has been palpable. From eager, curious learners to cynical, know-it-alls. Not always, thank goodness. Often enough, they approach a problem as if they’ve already seen everything and cannot be surprised or moved to wonder. Stepping back, I ask myself how much of that is the natural progression of tweenism, how much the vast flow of information and Siri to answer every question, and how much is my mirror.

I raced through high school and college, seeing no point in slowing down. When I graduated law school, I was relatively young (23), and it was no selling point. At a time I needed most to embrace being a beginner, I thought I needed to know all and be all, all on my own.

Whether weight loss, heart disease, diabetes or finances, debt recovery, and investment – or any topic on earth – I can choose to enter again as a beginner or as a cynic who already knows what should be done. In lots of situations, lots of us do know what needs to be done. Cognitively, we know how weight is lost, what stymies heart disease, what needs to happen to course correct. So when we receive an opportunity to learn, we may say, “No thanks. I have an MBA in finance. There’s nothing you can teach me in a personal finance class.” We leave a Sunday morning sermon and gripe, “Well, that wasted my time! I already know how to avoid fill-in-the-blank.” Our kids’ schools offer classes on literacy, and we give thanks we aren’t required to attend. Our companies require attendance to re-learn the badness of sexual harassment and we all sigh because everybody knows what it is, that it still happens, that classes alone are insufficient. Our doctors tell us to reduce stress, and we think, “Mmhmm. You first.”

In part, growing older often means developing this hard outer shell that resists the very idea of being taught, let alone enjoying it or finding worth therein.

You know, I actually made a rule recently that my kids weren’t allowed to ask Siri anything for a day. What became clear is that there is still plenty they want to learn. Why work for something when a nice lady or British gentlemen can answer in a serious or pithy way?

I cannot control the cynicism of age or the ubiquity of Siri-esque searches for knowledge, but I can control the kind of mirror I am. I can read a recipe, and slow down long enough to follow the steps. I can sign up for that class I already cognitively understand but have yet to put into practice. I can return to my breath, to mindfulness, to being instead of doing. I can log onto Khan Academy next to my kid and study history, music, Pixar storytelling. I can be found reading nonfiction on topics of parenting, writing, art, living, or reading fiction to learn about the human condition and spirit.

I can mirror to my boys (and myself) that curiosity has no age threshold. That being a beginner can be synonymous with excitement and courage and remembering who we were before we knew it all.

Someday, Lord willing, my boys will grow all the way up and move out into the world. I will still be here. And I will need to learn. How to embrace them living separate lives. How to not first be introduced as mom. How to. Forever. In all directions.

When you live with chronic depression and anxiety, you can be robbed of many things. Among them, curiosity and entertaining the beginning. In depression, beginning again can signal that I stopped again. Failed again. Fell down the rabbit hole again. Beginning is not exciting. It’s nerve-wracking. I desperately want to not need to begin again. I want this beginning to be my last beginning in that it lasts.

With anxiety, beginning can be triggering. Beginning anything with anxiety means new people, new places, new situations and tools and plans and schedules and routines and on and on and on. It means a lot of coping and not a lot of thrilling.

Here’s what I can say to both depression and anxiety: the beginning is real, meaningful, exciting, and sometimes only calculable in recovery. I celebrate your beginning, even if you can’t yet. Because it means you are here. It means you are here. Embracing the beginning the tiniest bit mirrors to yourself that beginnings can be positive, good, worthwhile, and eventually exciting. Hang in there. Keep beginning.

I challenge you, as I’ve challenged myself this year, to be a curious beginner. Start something with a wide-eyed, uncynical clarity and amusement. It can be dinner. Or literally anything else. Take a deep breath, drop your age-old sneer at not knowing, and get started!

Discipline: Reflect on Improvement

Discipline requires me to reflect on my own need for improvement while maintaining my part in community.

Once in a great while, I think it might be nice to live in a vacuum. A space entirely void of matter. No sound. Nothing. Almost like being timeless. It seems so peaceful. Being in a vacuum seems like the ultimate in rest therapy. Especially this year.

The problem with vacuum living is that it is entirely void of matter. And everything that matters. It’s a suffocating, airless existence that wouldn’t be as restful as I would want it to be unless I get a whole lot better at stasis and lack of oxygen.

I joined Twitter back in 2011 and it was oxygen. Suddenly, I had access to people all over creation with all kinds of perspectives. I followed publishers and editors, agents and book bloggers. I followed writers and artists. The flow of information washed over me in welcome waves. People linked to all sorts of resources, most of which I’d never have happened upon myself. For lots of folks, finding community online probably happened way before 2011.

I was late to pretty much every aspect of computing and ye olde internets. I grew up in small town, rural Oklahoma. My family had no game system or PC before I left for college. School computers were only used for keyboarding class. As a college freshman in 1995, I had to learn how to use a floppy disk. Very often, I demagnetized them…simply by being myself. I had a cell phone and a laptop in 2001, used pretty much exclusively for phone calls and word processing. Fast forward to 2010, when my nephew fell ill. He turned 18, ran a five-minute-mile, and then had a blast crisis (leukemia) – all while at basic combat training away from home. That summer, I sent my first text message. Because I needed connection. And I wished I had sent them earlier and often. I also joined Facebook. But then, THEN I found Twitter.

Twitter felt like being expelled from the vacuum of my life and into a wider, brighter world. I learned so much by listening.

This year, much has been made of so-called toxic book Twitter. It’s not book Twitter or YA Twitter that is toxic but specific uses and users within all communities. I’ve been known to call social media antisocial a time or two. There, too, it’s a matter of use.

Recently, when I announced my 2018 theme, I took a vacation from Facebook and Twitter through the end of next year. Not because it’s toxic but because of my ambitious theme. The choice felt like both versions of the vacuum: quiet rest and cold void.

Thing is, regardless of the toxic people or uses of Twitter, I continued to learn through the day I left for vacation.

I need to improve. As a human, as an artist, as a writer. I need to learn more about differing perspectives. I need more and better tools to grow into the artist I want to become. I need to learn the business of writing. I need to improve as a conveyor of ideas. My voice, my message, my future livelihood – all depend on my improvement.

Living in Oklahoma with no resources for attending conferences, and now choosing to be away from social media, I wonder how best to maintain a sense of community. I can involve myself with local art and writing events, SCBWI meetings, and volunteer opportunities. I can seek out blogs and all that great information Twitter brought my way, and maybe even find things when I need them rather than in the out-of-sync stream of social media. I can entrench myself in the resources I know about, like SCBWI, SVS, and Manuscript Academy.

Unsurprisingly, my artistic life isn’t my only area rife with opportunities to improve. The discipline is essentially the same. Step 1: Reflect on areas for self-improvement. Step 2: Maintain a part in the community (including subcommunities).

If we all keep noticing our need to improve and reaching into our communities, the world will keep getting bigger and brighter and better. And maybe the pull of the vacuum will calm down and leave us to our breath.