Tag Archives: LifelongLearning

Boxers, Banjos and Bravery

It has been my experience that Boxers are particularly sensitive dogs. Every time my husband sneezes, for example, Buttercup rushes to his aid. When my daughter is sad, Delta refuses to leave her side. The mere sight of a suitcase throws them into malaise. So, you can imagine how mortified I was when, after just a few moments of strumming my banjo, they abruptly woke from their nest on the couch, groaned deeply in unison, and promptly walked out of my office. Apparently, their sensitivity ends just past earshot of me struggling to play Earl (I named my banjo after Earl Scruggs as an offering for his intercession. It’s a longshot, I know).

If you follow me on social media, you know that my husband recently had my dad’s banjo restrung so that I could learn to play. It is a beautiful Washburn Style C tenor banjo circa 1924. Though I never saw him play, my dad toted this instrument across the country a couple of times. I have always wanted to play the banjo. I can still feel the joy welling in my chest when I imagine listening to Bluegrass live with my dad. I am captivated by practiced fingers picking in a blur across the strings. Raucous singular notes pelt my eardrums and then wrap around each other to make sense just as they hit my brain. Boots stomp at the glory of it all. Urgent hoots and yelps urge the players together.  I can feel the energy rising up from the floor taking my heart in its grip and squeezing until I cannot form words. I want to make that music. If Buttercup and Delta are any indication though, I am nowhere close.

I approached playing the banjo the way I always do when I am tackling something new. In fact, it is the way my father taught me. I bought some books. When I could not imagine what I was reading, I watched some YouTube videos. Then I resorted to the GTS method (Googled That Stuff). All to no avail.

Other than the obligatory parochial school recorder and a minor middle school foray into guitar, I have no experience playing an instrument. I cannot read music. Though I know the beautiful sounds I would like to make. I cannot seem to make them.  Everything is awkward. My fingers are slow. My mind feels slow. I look at the page and I don’t understand what it is asking me to do.  The obvious, of course, occurs to me. I need to find a teacher. Yet, I have this idea that I need to be better at this than I am right now to even start with a teacher. It’s embarrassing to be chasing-away-dogs-bad at this. It is as if I am a negative 3 on a scale of 1 to 10 and I need to be a 1 just to be able to take a class.

Intellectually I know that it is not true that I have to be better just to start classes. I was a teacher and I believe in the power of yet to combat I can’t.  The real issue is not whether I can learn to play the banjo. The real issue is whether or not I will allow myself to be embarrassingly bad on the way to learning something. It is an issue of being brave enough to be vulnerable. To accept that I cannot do this….yet.

The fear of embarrassment or failure is a powerful self-limiter.  It doesn’t just stop you when you have evidence that something might be difficult to learn. It can stop you when you simply imagine that something might be too difficult. In an effort to spare you the embarrassment, though, it robs you of the chance to learn something new. Worse, it robs you of the chance to learn something new about yourself.   It brings the chance to see where these fears come up in our lives. How they hold us back from being fully ourselves and realizing our dreams.

So, I am going to be brave. I am going to strum loud and proud. I am going to accept that I am not where I want to be, but I am on the journey to becoming. Perhaps, in those moments I will embarrass myself. Embarrassment is not terminal.  It is certainly much less painful than the sharp pain of regret.

What holds you back from becoming what you are meant to be?

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

Rejection = Redirection

Have your ever wanted to write a book? I think I have wanted to my whole life. Not too long ago, in fact, I came across some of the most melodramatic drivel I have ever read, in a box of artifacts from my middle school years. The main character’s hair was black as coal and flowed like silk. She sliced through the murky depths, her lithe body gripping the water…. blah, blah, blah. I had no idea what I was writing about. I was maybe 13, so I certainly did not know enough about life to be writing a fast-paced mob-story-slash-romance set in a city I had only ever seen on a map.

I had dreams, though. I even wrote poetry in high school, which should not come as a surprise since the adolescent psyche, combined with a hurricane of hormones and emotions, often seeps out in vague pictures painted incomprehensibly by SAT vocabulary words. Sadly, my dreams of being an author before I could vote were dashed when a literary expert, who was pressed into service scoring the Georgia State High School Poetry Contest in 1981, failed to see the deep expression of my wisdom and emotion when I likened love to a pearl being sanded smooth on a gelatinous bed of oyster flesh. (I think we can all see how I ended up a biology major.) So, I turned my pen to science and wrote, a lot.

Though I believe everything in the universe happens in the only way it can, there is a little piece of me that regrets taking that early criticism to heart and allowing it to curb my writing. I wish my critiquer had taken a mentoring stance and provided me with constructive feedback.  Some 40 years later, I have finished my first novel and am plotting my second. I am participating in critique groups, taking classes, seeking feedback from beta readers, and attending conferences. Most importantly, I am pitching and querying. Writing a novel was not the hardest part. It was hard, don’t get me wrong, but searching for an agent is far, far harder. The road to publishing, though having many routes, feels a bit like surgery without anesthesia. The pain is sharp, and you can hear everyone dissecting you.  It is not for the faint at heart.

Fortunately, I am older and wiser than when I penned my ode to a pearl. I believe in my novel. I have a lot to learn about the road to publishing. I am learning because I am open to the learning. In the process, I am learning more about myself.

Be in the moment.

Christine J. Noble

Lesson One: As with all worthy journeys, this one is easier once you find your family.  I have an amazing group of family and friends who share their wisdom, love, and support generously.  They are the perfect combination of truth and grace. They have such compassion for the rollercoaster of writing and publishing. It is a wild ride.  We all need people to give us a push on the hills, and to help us loosen our grip and enjoy the ride.

Confidence without arrogance.

Faith with humility.

It is a fine line.

Lesson Two: You can’t take criticism of your writing personally.  This might be the hardest thing I have had to learn. I love my book. I am very proud of my work.  Hearing criticism is painful. I am learning to balance my gut and my pride. Sometimes I don’t want to change something because I really love what I have written. There are so many beautiful words, placed just so. When it is criticized, it can be hard to know if I am clinging to it out of pride or if I honestly think it is best writing I can do. Confidence without arrogance. Faith with humility. It is a fine line.

Rejection = redirection

Beth Weg

Lesson Three: Finding the right agent is worth all the rejections you get along the way.  The first decline I received was extremely painful because it came 10 minutes after I sent it. I thought, if you read even the first line you would have loved my book! My next rejection came a few days later, and I thought, what if my writing is terrible and all my beta readers lied to me?  Then I got a decline letter that changed my whole perspective.  The agent pointed out that the process is subjective, and she encouraged me to keep submitting queries until I found an agent who would be an enthusiastic advocate of my work. I realized that, if an agent declines my query, it does not necessarily mean there is anything wrong with my book or writing. There is also nothing wrong with them. Agents are tremendously busy. They select projects that they can champion. It is a kindness if they decline when they do not feel I am a match.  Refer to #2. Agents know what they like, and they know what they can sell. Just like every reader does not like every genre or book or author, neither do agents. For every bestseller, there is an agent out there who turned that author down. It is a good thing that they did because they may not have been able to find just the right publisher for that book.

Just keep working the problem.

James Shipman

Lesson Four: Patience is not just a virtue.  Patience is required for survival. As in life, it is true in writing. There is so much outside of my control. Patience does not mean inaction. It means accepting the pace of the process and working on my next one so that I do not stagnate. I continue to grow and develop as a writer. I can trust that if I keep working the problem, I will find that perfect agent who will find me the perfect publisher. In the meantime, I can write.

What is your dream?

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020

Make a Habit of It

It’s 4:15 AM and my REM-induced travels are abruptly ended by my clock radio blaring Miranda Lambert. In silence, I get up, get dressed, and brush my teeth. In the workout room, I turn on the fan and put my bike shoes on.  I spend 30 minutes on the bike, change shoes and put in 30 minutes on the Erg. I turn off the fan, turn out the lights in the work out room, and shut the door so that Buttercup does not eat any more of my gear.  She is a young Boxer with a wicked addiction to Blistex.  In the kitchen, I make a smoothie and drink it while checking my emails.  I take a shower, put on my makeup and get dressed.  I load up the Jeep, open the garage door, turn the Jeep on, back out and go to work. I do this every weekday.  Mostly with unconscious precision.  Oh sure, I have occasionally shown up for work in dark navy heels when I should have worn black but that is more an aging eyesight issue than an attention issue.  I have never, for example, backed out before opening the garage door.  The fact is that all of that is habit.  I do it mostly without thinking, in the right order, and with nearly 100% accuracy.  It is a habit set in a specific context. I am home. It is morning. It is a weekday.  I don’t have to think about it all which is fortunate.  Imagine how big our heads would have to be if we had to consciously think about every single thing we do, every time we do it.  If every time we put our keys in the car, we had to remember how to drive or think about how to get to work, our noggins would have to be enormous to hold all those neurons.  Most of what we do is routine and habitual.  If you don’t believe me, think about what you did yesterday.  Try to remember the details of what you did.  I am not talking about the memorable events like a conversation with a friend. I am talking about the thousands of things you filtered out as routine and unimportant as you drove through life.  Just the other day, my daughter drove us somewhere that I would usually drive to.  I could not believe what I had missed on that trip I make hundreds of times. There was literally a huge new building on a corner that I had driven by repeatedly without notice. Missing a building is probably not a huge concern, but I know I miss other things being on autopilot.  I know because I have an 18-year-old conscience living with me. When I ask her a question that she already answered when I was not fully present, she lets me know, “I literally told you this like 3 minutes ago.”  Cue cringe and apology.

The truth is that not all habits are bad. They save us time. Driving to work would take forever if I had to think about every little action it takes to get there. Red light means stop.  I should stop. How do I do that again?  Foot on the brake and clutch. Is it the right foot brake or left foot to brake? Habits save us from needing that enormous head of neurons I mentioned before. Habits leave room for things we think are more important.  If I don’t have to think about rotating my leg on the bike, I can mentally compose my blog for example.  However, not being fully present, and therefore missing my life as it is actually happening right now, is a drawback to practicing habits.  In addition, many habits are actually unhealthy, harmful, or simply unwanted, as Hugh Byrne points out in The Here-and-Now Habit.  Though even the negative habits develop out of a positive intention, they are nonetheless harmful.  Smoking, for example, is often used as an attempt to combat anxiety and overeating is often used to provide a sense of comfort.  Some people use alcohol and drugs to numb themselves to emotional or psychological pain.  Gambling gives some people a thrilling rush of adrenalin.  Unfortunately, those habits must be continually fed and, worse, they are often followed by painful consequences.  These are the extremes, of course, and the hardest to change.

But everyone has some habit that is interfering with living life to its fullest.  Maybe social media has become a distraction that keeps you from being fully present with family and friends or prevents you from accomplishing other goals.  Maybe you want to be more active, but you just cannot stop watching Criminal Minds (not judging just noticing here).  Maybe you want to make healthy food choices.  That has been a goal of mine.  I have a sweet tooth of epic proportion. I had been doing very well making good choices until the Christmas holiday came along.  It started with a small piece of apple pie on Christmas Eve with a dollop of vanilla bean ice cream. I thought I could handle it. I mean it was made with apple. That is a fruit after all. And apparently, vanilla is a bean.  Just saying.   But alas, no. That apple pie was my gateway sweet and it led directly to chocolate.  Before I knew it, I was at a Starbucks, wild-eyed and thirsting for a mocha, extra hot with whipped.  It wasn’t pretty.  The rest is just too horrible to mention. Suffice it to say peppermint and ginger were involved.   I am not proud.  It reminded me of this guy I used to work with.  Whenever something intense would happen at work, he would start patting all of his pockets.  Then he would stop talking and I could tell he was having this conversation in his head, “Where did I leave my cigarettes?  Pants? Shirt? Car?  Damn it! I quit smoking. Why did I quit smoking?” He had quit at least 10 years before. Any kind of conflict left him searching for a lighter. I get the inclination. I made a habit of mindlessly eating chocolate and all of its confectionery cousins.  I was pretty annoyed to find myself caught in its seductive web yet again.  As I was reading The Here-and-Now Habit by Hugh Byrne, I realized that sheer willpower and intention are not enough to overcome a habit.  Eating sweets is a habit that I slipped back into without really thinking about it.  Unlike driving my car or getting ready for work in the morning, it is a habit that I want to change and the only way that is going to happen is by bringing awareness and attention to it.  I don’t want to think about which foot to use to brake the Jeep. I need to think about what I am doing when I am wandering past that bowl of truffles.  I can get the same feeling of well being and pleasure from the endorphins I get cycling as I get from the dopamine eating sweets.  When it is all said and done, I feel like cheering after a great workout, not so much after a truffle.  The insidious thing about harmful or unwelcome habits it that they can happen without our conscious intention.  Repeated actions in a similar context is all they need to burrow into our minds and bodies. The amazing thing is that we can develop positive habits that help us to live life to its fullest.  All you need is awareness, attention and intention. In other words, be present.  It is what gets me up at 4:15 every morning.

What habits are holding you back?

More importantly, what habits would make your life better?

 

I chose this photography of my New Year’s Day bike ride with my best friend because it reminds me of how much better cycling is than chocolate especially when you get to do it outdoors with your best friend.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

If you believe you are a Labrador Retriever….

I was having coffee with some friends recently when, inevitably, the subject of our dogs came up.  Three of us have medium to large dogs and one has a smaller, hypoallergenic one (which is brilliant since I think EVERYONE needs a dog).  I mentioned that I grew up with Basset Hounds, but that these have been ruled out since my husband has a strict rule about only having dogs who can jump into the truck on their own accord. The Mastiff owner shared that he knew a guy once who had a Basset Hound – Black Lab mix (visions of the Island of Dr. Moreau popped into my head).  The dog apparently had the body style of a Basset and the head and coloring of a Lab.   Despite his ground-skimming physique, he could jump into a truck.  To which I remarked, “Well, I guess he didn’t know he was a Basset Hound.”

I was thinking about this and it occurred to me that a dog’s self-perception is not really limited by the stories in his (or her) head in the way that people’s self-perceptions are.  Puppies don’t have self-limiting beliefs.  A puppy doesn’t react in the present to some story his mom told him about how he’s never really been good at playing fetch and probably he should learn how to howl.   Dogs are all basically instinct and direct experience.  Take Stumpy, for example (I just named him that because BH-BL seemed too impersonal for such a courageous heart).  Maybe Stumpy watched his mom, a leggy Lab with a shiny Black coat, leap gracefully into her owner’s truck every morning.  Not realizing he inherited his dad’s stocky build, he just followed her one day. (And yes, I do understand the biological unlikelihood of this scenario but stay with me, I have a point.)  Maybe he didn’t reach the cab the first day. But he kept trying because, after all, he’s a Lab. Labs ride around in trucks and go duck hunting.  Imagine what would have happened to poor Stumpy if someone told him that his dad was a low riding Basset Hound better suited to rooting out bears in the bramble than gracefully retrieving the carcass of a Mallard.  Dogs operate on instinct. They don’t stop trying because things are hard. They do what comes naturally. When unsuccessful, they work around it.  Take Sadie and Strauss, for example. Sadie was a lithe Grey Hound – Lab mix. She was lightning fast and loved the water.  Strauss was a Border Collie – Springer Spaniel mix. She loved to round things up.  When we would play catch by the river, Sadie would always beat Strauss to the stick. Strauss really had no chance of catching her. But she wanted that stick. Eventually she realized that if she met Sadie at the edge of the water as she was bringing back the stick, she could herd her until Sadie was so confused and tired that Strauss could steal the stick right out of her mouth and bring it to us.  Strauss didn’t give up playing catch.  It was fun! (Who doesn’t want to hear “Good girl! Bring it here!”  a hundred times or more?) Strauss didn’t try to out run Sadie. She figured out her gift and applied it until she got the job done.  Trust me, Sadie would run herself ragged, but she couldn’t escape Strauss’ herding skills.

I recognize we are not dogs. Humans have more complicated lives and we do more complex things than other animals do. But there is something to be said for taking a cue from our four-legged friends.  What if we all believed that we could get better at something, master it even, just by learning from our mistakes and trying again?  What if we didn’t have a story about the past that limited our experience in the present?  What if we saw our failures as learning and not as personal deficits?  What if we believed we could change the outcome merely through increasing our effort and applying our talents?  What if we acknowledged and acted upon the possibility that we might have talents we have not yet discovered?

I remember when my daughter was learning to walk.  It went really fast and I am not sure what her ultimate goal was, but she always had the most determined look on her face.  Just like all other children, she started by standing on her wobbly legs leaning against the couch. She fell. A lot. In fact, she fell so often that we finally just started calling it FDGB (Fall Down Go Boom) to save time. But she did not stop trying. Once she mastered standing and leaning, she tried standing alone. When she mastered that, she took her first step. Every new thing she tried, she fell down.  After every success she had, she tried something harder and failed immediately.  But she didn’t stop.  She cried, dusted herself off, got a hug and off she went.  I didn’t say to her after the second fall or even the tenth one, “It’s OK.  I don’t think walking is for you.  You’re probably just not good at walking. Let’s go back to crawling.”  It sounds absurd doesn’t it?  I said, “You’re fine. You’ll get.  Try again. I am right here.”  I reassured her that she might not be able to walk yet. Sometimes we forget that last part – yet.  Take math for example, has anyone ever said to you, “It’s OK. You’re probably just not good at math.” Or did they tell you, “You’ll get it. It’s hard now but keep trying. You just haven’t learned this yet.”

 

We are all different. We all have different gifts.  I am not suggesting everything is within our grasp. For example, I am 5’ 4” and stocky. Genetically, I lean toward people who hauled in fish nets or thatched roofs.  No amount of effort or will would turn me into a figure skater or a gymnast (trust me, I know physics).  But that did not keep me from enjoying a lifetime of sports more aligned to my physique. What I am suggesting is that we examine the stories we tell ourselves, and more importantly, the stories we tell our children through our actions and words, to make sure that we are sending the right messages:

I believe that I can get better at something, master it even, just by learning from my mistakes and trying again.

I will not listen to the stories about the past that limit my experience in the present.

I see my failures as learning and not as a personal deficit.

I believe I can change the outcome merely through increasing my effort and applying my talents.

I know I have talents I have not yet discovered.

Do you? Will you?

 

DocFile (2)

DocFile (1)

Learning to Walk

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.