Friday, January 8, 2010

This little light of mine...

Light gives of itself freely, filling all available space. It does not seek anything in return; it asks not whether you are friend or foe. It gives of itself and is not thereby diminished. ~Michael Strassfeld

Back in the days before Ipods, Pandora music online, their interest in MTV and Sirius radio, my children thought the entertainer, Raffi, was Elvis Presley, Snoop Dogg and Pavarotti all rolled into one. We never left the house without a Raffi cassette tape in my dashboard, and a trip to the park or the grocery store usually included all of us singing "Joshua Giraffe", "The Wheels on the Bus", and that solid gold favorite, "Baby Beluga". If you have had children within the last 24 years, you know about Raffi. His live shows sold out faster in every area than U2 concerts. Now that my children are older teens, they only have vague and hazy memories of this chapter in their lives. They don't remember making the whole family sit in the living room, so that they could put on a Raffi cover band "concert"; my son strumming a Ukulele, pretending it was a guitar, and my daughter holding up a hairbrush microphone. They took these matinees very seriously and expected all of us to sing along with them. Although they were only about 2 and 4 at the time, they would set the stage, have 'shout out' moments in which the audience would have to sing parts and would expect rapt attention. I look back on these precious preschool days with a mother's heart and a mother's memory. But, I also realize what a tremendous lesson these experiences were for them. My children learned how to 'shine' in a safe, joyful and loving environment.

The one song that I remember beyond all of the others wasn't a Raffi original, but was his take on an old gospel song. "This little light of mine" is one I find myself humming constantly. It was written by Harry Dixon Loes in 1920. It first became popular during the Christian tent revival movement during that time. Later, "This little light of mine" became a resounding anthem for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's. It's had political histories from many different groups. It's been recorded by current artists, such as Bruce Springsteen and Joss Stone, as well as in numerous movie scores. It's a catchy, upbeat and uplifting little hymn, that's just as appealing to liberal leaning folks as it is to conservatives. The universal message of allowing our inner light, God's light, to shine within us is a powerful image.

The inspiring second verse of the hymn uses the words "Don't let anyone blow it out, I'm going to let it shine...." takes the lesson even further. In addition to allowing our inner gifts, our beauty, our strength and our courage to emanate from within, we are also implored to remain powerful in the presence of opposition. I've learned a great deal from this second part of the song. Why? For too long, I allowed outside influences to effect my happiness, my self-confidence, my beliefs and my abilities. I acquiesced to the leanings of other people. It's a wonderful thing to be able to learn from others, to share information and to be partners. It's quite another to allow them to steam-roll over you to change your opinion into theirs. No one should have the authority, or ability, to snuff out the light that shines in another person's heart. No one should be so demoralized that their feelings, their gifts and their very essence should be demeaned and vanquished. We should all be safe enough in our lives to shine in the way we were meant to.

What area of your own life could use a light to shine upon it? Could it be your you need to see, with true awareness what is, and isn't, working in them? Is it, possibly, your ability to contribute valuable ideas? Far too many organizations and workplaces stifle creative, lateral thinking...but do you have an idea you can share to make work more successful, happy and streamlined? What about your faith traditions....are the ones you grew up with working for you, or do you need to seek out a path that speaks to your heart? What will it take, in every area of your life's journey, to kindle the flame of light within you? How can you fan the flames of love, confidence, success, passion, joyfulness and determination? Conversely, how can you keep that light burning, when others try to 'blow it out'?

When you need to, hum "This little light of mine". Don't worry about what the people around think. Sing away. Dance. Dream. Be in the light. Keep the light going. And, pass it on.

This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Lessons in Writing and Living

We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations. ~ Anaïs Nin

Twenty five years ago, I was a student at Wheaton College, and sitting in a creative writing class with Professor Lichtenstein. Professor Lichtenstein was one of my favorite teachers. She was beautiful, smart, intuitive and had an enthusiasm for her subject unsurpassed by other instructors. She taught us about life beyond the traditional New England campus, and encouraged us to find our life's purposes, regardless if they had anything to do with her class. Professor Lichtenstein told us that there were three vital elements to a meaningful paper, as well as to a meaningful life:
  1. Always be aware of your voice. Hear your voice in your work, in your conversations and your passions. Listen carefully if your voice becomes a parrot for someone else's opinions, thoughts or ideals. These augmenting meditations are helpful in forming a complete picture of our own reflections but should not overshadow them. Our thoughts should be intrinsically our own.
  2. Always be aware of the present moment. Understand that the past is over and the future is yet to be. Heed being aware of your surroundings, how you feel and what your experience is as it happens. It's far more elusive to try to recapture moments after they're gone, especially when our minds were elsewhere. There is nothing more vital that paying attention, with rapt absorption, to the life you're living now. Once those feelings are gone, it's impossible to reclaim them. If you never had ownership to begin with, you cannot recreate a sentiment that never existed.
  3. Always keep childlike enthusiasm and spirit alive in your heart. When we're young, we feel things with a depth of emotion that we lose later on in life. When we hear the ice cream truck's sing-song music, our youthful hearts skip a beat and we want to run outside, quarter in hand, to buy a Good Humor Strawberry Eclair bar. The lightness of being a child gets squashed down by loss, by hurt, by failure, by fear, by anxiety. The more you can rekindle that spark of tender fervor, the more likely you are to appreciate the little things in both life and writing.
I have to admit that, at the time of these lectures (of which I've paraphrased a year's worth here), I was already struggling with all three of these areas in my life. At 19, I didn't have a clue as to what my voice was. I was daydreaming of a young marriage, a Volvo wagon and three children before I was 30. I would shift gears and think I'd want to be a career woman, living in the city in a fabulous apartment. My thoughts would change again, and I'd picture myself as a world traveler, never resting one place for long. I didn't know my political leanings, my personal style or even my favorite foods. I tended to like whatever was in front of me at the moment. I wasn't trying to be irresolute. I simply couldn't 'hear' my voice yet because the opinions all around me seemed to carry far more weight. As I matured and discovered that I did have tastes that were exclusively my own, I began to understand Professor Lichtenstein's motive in this comment; it's languid to change opinions based on what's going on around you. It's a simple thing to be easily led. It takes character to know who you are, and to express that in words, both on paper and in speech. It also means that you will have a greater sense of self-awareness.

Living in the present moment was also a tough area for me to work on. I've always had my head in the clouds. I could never wait for the next weekend, the next chapter in a book, the sequel to a movie. I spent years wasting time just to get to the next stage of life, in which I'd waste more time. And yet, during my Yoga Instructor training, this was one of the most powerful areas to explore. In setting the tone for my classes, I've had to learn to suspend time outside the door, not only for myself, but also for my students. During the 75 minutes of our class time, our focus is exclusively on where we are physically, emotionally and spiritually at the present moment. There is no wiggle room for daydreaming and mental list making. As my Yoga style and skills have developed over the past decade, I've discovered that I've been able to translate this to the rest of my life. It's had a profound effect on my writing, as well as on my enjoyment of each moment that I'm given in this life. What a sad existence it would be if we arrived to the conclusion of our lives never having truly felt the twinkling junctures that punctuate our journey. The trip is far richer if you take notice of it.

The third area, as Dorothy said upon leaving Oz, is the one I'll miss the most. Childhood's captivating magic is far more elusive than the first two points of Dr. Lichtenstein's lectures. In a way, I've discovered that it actually combines the first two principles. When you're a child, you know who you are. You may know, without hesitation that you live in a white house on a street that's lined with trees, and that your best friend lives around the corner.You know that you love your Grandma but aren't too crazy about the mean neighbor that refuses to let you Christmas carol at his house. You love pizza with your own favorite toppings and like having sleepovers. Within each defining characteristic, that makes you understand yourself with full awareness, is the enjoyment of time passing around you but not touching you. I can recall whole days spent at the beach with my friends, or riding my horse in the Santa Barbara foothills or biking around the harbor in summer time Maine with exceptional clarity. I wasn't thinking about what I'd do next. I did not consult a day planner or check my voice mail. I was simply living the splendor of life, as it presented itself to me, without wondering about the next step. That alchemical process of letting life unfold around you, rather than forcing it to happen in particular way, is an area of childhood I miss deeply. As a writer, it's important to consider a predetermined outline, form, structure and style. But, if I leave out that conjuring metamorphosis of allowing the words to 'will themselves to be told', my work will be shallow and lacking in passion. I need to find the balance to create a structurally sound, and still emotionally evocative, piece of work. I also need to feel the same balance in my everyday life; paying my bills on time, being a responsible community member and showing sound judgement, while still finding freedom to just allow unplanned experiences wash over me, charming me and inspiring me to continue to grow.

I have no idea where Professor Lichtenstein is today. I know that she's no longer at Wheaton, but I don't remember her first name to Google her. The lessons she taught me, however, have stayed with me ever since. I believe that I'm a better writer, and a far better human being, because of talks we'd have. She inspired me to continue writing, and although I'm not a bestselling author as she'd once predicted, I can't imagine experiencing my life without using the words she encouraged me to find. So, Professor Lichtenstein, wherever you are, thank you....thank you from the silly, preppy girl who wore an awful lot of pink, far too much Laura Ashley and carried a floral tote instead of a backpack. Thank you for teaching me to be my own person, living in and appreciating today's gifts. I am a stronger, kinder, and more intelligent person because of you.