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Archive for March, 2011

Journaling: Linear Notes to Tame a Circular Mind

March 28, 2011 6 comments

I got stuck in the mire again.   The other day I wrote my first entry in my journal in well over a year, and remembered in a rush just how satisfying this form of venting is.  So I thought, “this will be an easy blog topic!”  I figure many, if not most, writers have journaled at some point in their lives, and I’ve kept a fairly continuous diary going since 6th grade.  But I forgot that it’s inherently personal, which makes it hard to talk about.  And, of course,  my research took me on a distracting side trip down memory lane.  Finally, I got mired in a bog of metacognition–thinking about thinking.  So three weeks after my last post, I’m only just now pulling this one together.

I’ve been self aware for as long as I can remember.  Keeping a written log where I talk to myself was a natural extension of the mental process I do every day.  And I find it to be extremely therapeutic; I recommend it to anyone who’s struggling with issues in their life or who just wants to feel better about things in general.  I’m thinking of how during my most difficult times, I scribbled out my fears and frustrations, and sometimes stained the finished product with tears.  I always felt better after such episodes.  And, amazingly, looking back I can see that the most unhappy journal entries usually end with a logical conclusion or plan.  I believe that keeping my journal kept me sane–kept me being me–throughout all the phases of my life. 

My very first journal was the kind of small book typically given to a girl as her first diary.  Before filling all the pages in there, I moved up to a much better size book, about 8″ x 5,” covered in cordoroy, and completely filled it during my high school years.  (I cannot claim to have been always a deep thinker; I have the book to prove just how silly I actually was.)  My best journal ever was an empty ledger my mom brought me home from work, which I wrote in through my college years and my 20’s.  I think bigger paper encouraged me to think bigger thoughts.  Regardless, I know I loved writing in that big book, and found plenty of time to do so, even while going to college and grad school, getting married, working at my first full-time job in my chosen profession, and taking care of a baby while working part time.  I filled that book too–all 300 large pages of it, including both sides of the end paper and part of the back cover.

The latest few years have been a more peaceful time in my life, as I’ve grown somewhat in wisdom and confidence, at least in my role as mother, which was for many years my primary source of anxiety.  For 10 years after my first child was born, I journaled regularly, and sometimes daily during particularly rough patches.  Those entries were often interrupted in the middle of my stream of thought.  I’d return only to forget what my point was.  Now, however, my life seems to have settled into a fairly easy routine with little drama or indecision to work through.  I guess I’ve felt less need to vent this way, choosing to instead work out any anxiety through other means, such as exercise, music, or conversations with my husband.  Over this period of time, my journal became at turns a house hunting journal, a weight loss journal, and a party planning journal.  Finally, it fell almost completely by the wayside. 

Since embarking on blogging last year, I’ve had difficulty getting a momentum going.  To jumpstart my progress, I took time out a few weeks ago to clarify my writing goals.  Why was I wanting to do this?  I noted how I usually have all these thoughts knocking around inside my head while I go about my daily routine, how I’d like to round them up and put them in order.  But I have no tangible record of most of them.  At best I will have a sentence or two written down somewhere, sometimes a paragraph, but they are all disjointed, and there’s no narrative flow.  I suspect that resuming my journaling habit will be helpful in this regard.  Talking to myself and making my thoughts real on paper is a way of putting everything in order.  It can act as a mental filter, too, between what I think and what I choose to share.  There’s no issue of writer’s block when you’re journaling for yourself.  When I sat down with my composition notebook last week, I easily filled six pages.

One challenge in my writing has always been non-linear thinking.  When I was in college, my notes were littered with arrows and thought bubbles and marginal anecdotes–highlighting the relationships between various ideas.  When writing a paper, my usual method was to gather all my relevant quotes and observations I obtained from my research, put them all into a document, including my argument and ideas, and then spend hours cutting and pasting,  often moving entire paragraphs around, rewording awkward sentence structure, until everything finally fit neatly together.  It was a lot like completing a puzzle.  And, eureka!, the conclusion usually came as an epiphany.  I find I write the same way now.  I will start out having an idea that I know is relevant and worth sharing, but I’m not sure exactly how or why until I’ve reached the end of the process.

My mental filing cabinet probably looks a little like my physical filing system.  As a small example, I have saved in  the bottom middle drawer of my dresser an idea scrawled in blue crayon in the margins of the instruction manual to my old Hoover Windtunnel, an appliance I no longer own.  I wrote this during a sudden brainstorm I had with no pen or paper handy.  Later, I stuck this manual with its possibly valuable idea in the drawer, where it’s been now for several years–and I’m not about to move it any time soon.   In fact, I have lost many an item by attempting to file it someplace seemingly safe and logical.  Nope, that bottom drawer is its home for now.  Thinking about this now, it makes sense to me.  The thoughts I had then and the emotions I associate with them have been moved to a bottom drawer in my subconscious–not to be thrown away, but also not a priority at this time.

Now take this bottom drawer illustration and multiply it by at least a thousand, and you can perhaps understand my difficulty.  Everything has layers of meaning.  I imagine the inner workings of my brain look pretty convoluted.  I have all these tangled lines of thought that start clear and then trail maddenlingly off into limbo.  I believe now that journaling will help bring these ideas eventually to logical conclusions. 

And the best thoughts–the ones of which I’m most proud–I’ll share with you here.

Categories: Uncategorized

Clara’s Big Project

March 6, 2011 3 comments

Today I keep thinking of Clara’s toothy grin beneath the pioneer girl bonnet she wore to school Thursday.  She was literally bubbling with excitement at the prospect of presenting her biography report on Harriet Tubman. 

The third-grade class assignment came home a month ago.  Clara was excited from the get-go and wanted to get over to the library right away to get started selecting her biography.  Though I was very busy that afternoon, I didn’t want to squash that precious enthusiasm, so I dropped her off with big sister, Meredith, to find a biography while I ran her other sister, Adrienne, to violin lessons.  Clara picked her book out all on her own.  The initial enthusiasm was fleeting, of course.  Said book soon became a fixture on her nightstand. 

Three weeks later, despite my frequent reminders, she had only read one chapter.  Knowing the project was now due in a week, I sat down in the La-Z-Boy with Clara one evening and set about reading the rest of the book to her.  Almost as soon as I started to read, however, we both came to the realization that the person she’d chosen–the first woman to run for president, Victoria Woodhull–was not going to work as a subject for this project.  Victoria was a spunky woman who overcame poverty and other adversities to eventually become the first woman presidential candidate.  She was involved in the women’s suffrage movement.  She had many admirable qualities.  However, she worked as a spiritual medium and clairvoyant.  She and her second husband, also a spiritual medium, both divorced their spouses to be together.  Interestingly, one of her clients was railroad baron Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose financial assistance helped in her rise to prominence.  But this just wasn’t going to fly at Clara’s Christian school.  Oh no.

Well, we’d come a long way since that first excitement on getting this assignment.  However, this was no time for dithering.  We had to press on.  I ran upstairs to search her sisters’ bookshelves, knowing that with two sisters, one seven years older, we must have some biographies on hand.  Viola!  a Harriet Tubman paperback was tucked between the end of one bookshelf and a hardcover book.  Would it be enough pages?  Yes!  It was 53 pages, a good three pages over the minimum requirement.  Clara was relieved; I was relieved.  With three kids, I’ve learned to savor these little victories whenever they come my way.  I sent her to bed with her new book to read, and she came downstairs an hour or so later to announce she’d finished it.

Over the weekend, she completed her Biography Banner, a poster template she had to fill in with two drawings and information about the book she read.  Each time I suggested she work on it, she responded with wailing and gnashing of teeth.  And each time I insisted she get something accomplished.  So at last the banner was finished Tuesday night.   Which brings us to Wednesday, the last day before the big project was due.  Wednesdays after school are always a grind with Adrienne’s violin lesson from 4:00 – 4:30, Clara’s dance class from 6:15 – 7:00, and dinner usually sandwiched in-between.  Plus, Chili, our Cockapoo, had a groomers appointment and I had to pick her up sometime after 3:30. 

After climbing into the van after school on Wednesday, Clara informed me that the biography project was,  “a really big deal.”  The custodian’s son was going to be watching!  And taking pictures of each child in their costume!  I assured her that she would be able to get it done.  Next she tried to get excused from dance class, saying, “I’m not going to have enough time to make my note cards.”  I was having none of that.  “You had a month to work on this; if you were that worried, you should have started earlier.”  When she got home, she had a bath and I sat her down with the note cards to make for her speech, the only part of the project left to complete.  “Can I come with you to pick up Chili?”  “Nope, sorry, you have to work on these cards now, there’s dance class tonight.”  “It’s not fair!”   As I left to drop Adrienne at violin lessons and pick up Chili from the groomers,  I tried to ignore the nagging doubt in the back of my mind.  Maybe she can’t write the cards herself; maybe this is too hard. 

I’ve always encouraged my kids to do their own work.  “It’s the process not the product” is one of my core parenting beliefs.   Here’s my rationale for this opinion.  In the early grades, kids are trying out new skills–  reading, comprehending, explaining what they’ve learned.  The goal is not to produce slick projects or products.  The child whose parents complete the work will know she didn’t really do it herself.  And the bar will have been set dauntingly high.  Next time she has a similar assignment, she will likely think,  “I can’t do it, it’s too hard.”  In contrast, the child who completes a project herself is going to experience the satisfaction of accomplishment.  Better yet, the lightbulb may turn on and she’ll enjoy having learned something.  While she may or may not get an A, she’ll usually get the grade she deserves.  Regardless of any grade she receives, she’ll feel the pride of accomplishing something and will be more likely to approach her next project with an “I can do it” attitude.

An hour later, after her sister’s violin lesson and picking up Chili, I checked Clara’s progress.  She’d written one and a half cards.  I resisted the urge to read the cards.  I pointed out again the five questions her teacher, Mrs. Boman, wanted answered during the presentation.  Then I got started making dinner.  There was no time for me to sit and hold her hand; we were on a tight schedule.  A little while later, I sent Clara up to get dressed for dance class.  More wailing…*sigh*  I had to redirect her several times as she kept reverting to playing on her Nintendo DS.  She also kept insisting that she would never get it all done, while I kept reassuring her that yes, she would get it done after dance.

At dance class she told her teacher about her biography report.  I could feel her excitement growing.  When we got home I cleaned up some more after dinner and set her down again with note cards and her Harriet Tubman book.  I found the costume–a pioneer girl dress, apron, and bonnet I bought a few years ago for another event–and ironed it.  I kept checking on Clara’s project.  Turns out she had written five cards!  She was worried about the two-minute time limit, but not that she wouldn’t have enough information, rather that she had so much more to say still!  She appreciated Harriet Tubman’s story; I could tell she felt empathy for her plight as a slave. 

As Clara continued to write her cards, I noted her transformation from an ornery, combatant child to a real student.  She remarked that she was now really excited to give her report tomorrow.  At one point I put the bonnet on her head, and wish I had snapped a picture then; she looked so happy.  When I finally read her cards, I was genuinely impressed.  She had written a clear, concise story in the first person, including the five points that her teacher wanted, as well as a couple of stories that Clara wanted to share.  I told her that she had done a great job.  She read them out loud, noticed her own mistake on one of the cards, and corrected it.  She read them out loud a second time.  Amazingly, her report came out to be exactly two minutes long! 

Sometimes I get exhausted when I think too much about all the projects my kids and I have been involved in and how many more we still have to complete.  But it’s these moments I treasure along the way that keep me going.