The Boy in Santa Marta

Beach in Santa Marta

The last couple of days, I’ve been thinking about a boy I met just over a year ago. We didn’t exchange anything like words, but there was another sort of exchange, one that is hard to describe. But I’ll try…

I’m sitting on the seawall of a Caribbean beach; not a fancy resort beach, but a public beach in the heart of the Santa Marta. It’s a gorgeous, glorious morning despite being as hot as hades, and I’m just feeling relieved it isn’t as blasting hot as yesterday – yet.

I’m alone because Brad is swimming. Various people wander by, and then this boy comes up and sits on the sand about ten feet away from me. He looks around 16 years old, and he’s truly dressed in rags. He’s as skinny and sick looking as some of the homeless dogs we’ve seen around, and almost as thin as the dead dog we passed on the street the day before, it’s ribs like hoops rising above its sinking body.

I am nervous. People who are desperate, do desperate things. People who are in pain, hurt others. I have a daypack that carries things this boy can sell to buy food, or drugs, or whatever he desires. All he has to do is grab it and run. No way can I stop him.

And then he looks right at me with the most haunted eyes I’ve ever seen. They simply defy description. A passage from Graham Greene’s book, The Quiet American, explains better than I can:

Suffering is not increased by numbers. One body can contain all the suffering the world can feel.

I simply can’t imagine the things this boy has gone through, the horrors he’s lived. I feel like my heart will break for him. I wish I had money to give him, but I’m not carrying any.

He motions to me, and I realize he’s asking for a drink from my water bottle. I toss it to him, and he gulps down about half of it, then carefully replaces the lid and goes to toss it back to me. I shake my head and motion that he finish it. He gives me a smile in thanks, then downs the rest. A minute later, he gets up, nods and smiles goodbye to me, and continues down the beach.

What I still don’t understand completely is why this encounter struck me so hard. Giving a homeless boy a bottle of water? It seems like nothing, and I’ve given to a lot of homeless people. Why does this time stand out?

I think it’s because of the exchange between us.

My gift to him was water and kindness and truly “seeing” him, and I believe he recognized and appreciated that.

His gift to me was a profound example of extreme courage, and a simply bizarre strength and resilience that left me in awe. So many of us in his situation would dissociate and go numb, or become bitter and hard. There was no numbness in his eyes. No bitterness. He was just quietly, openly bearing the pain in his life.

Even now, that encounter makes me cry. I hope and pray that his life is better now. I hope and pray that if it hasn’t gotten better, that he is strong enough to bear it. I know I’ll always be grateful for our encounter, and I’ll always remember him. True courage is a hard thing to forget.

Shackles On, Shackles Off

I’m not just quitting writing posts of value; I’m also quitting with the original stuff. 🙂 I was so impressed by an exercise from “Steering by Starlight”, by Martha Beck, that I just had to share. Fair warning: you may want to read this exercise in her book as well, since I’m explaining my understanding of it, which may be wildly different from what she intended. There is a ton of other valuable stuff in her book too.

The exercise:

First, please meet “Shackles On”.

Think of a time you were doing something you disliked, even if it turned out well, even if you were praised for it and only you knew something wasn’t right. If it turned out dismally, even better! Now imagine it thoroughly. Remember what you were thinking, how you felt, some key scenes. Yuck, I know! But it’ll pay off in the end.

When you’re good and into it, stop and check into your body. What are you physically feeling? Tense in your jaw? Sick to your stomach? Shallow breathing? Pinpoint your individual physical reactions and remember them. Mine are a constricted throat, tightness in my chest, and sometimes a queasy feeling in my solar plexis. Shackles definitely on!

Next, “Shackles Off”.

Think of a time you were doing something you love, something that made you feel free and joyful and powerful in your life. Again, really get into it, roll around in the joy a bit, even laugh out loud. I did! And once again, tune into your body. How do you physically feel? What sensations is your body giving you? Pinpoint and remember them. Mine is an open, glowy feeling that’s impossible to describe without using nebulous, vague words like “open” and “glowy”.

Before I go further, I should explain that this exercise is based on the premise that when we are living a life that is worthy of our highest best self, we feel internally free. Shackles cannot exist in the zone, when we’re going with the flow, when we’re riding the wave.

Therefore, it seems kind of valuable to me to be able to recognize what will make me feel free before I actually do it – because, let’s face it, I can’t trust my brain. (I can just hear my husband laughing as he agrees!) But from what I see, pretty much all of us are heavily manipulated by ingrained cultural and personal beliefs, as well as by our hidden desires and fears. With all that against us, we don’t stand a chance of making a truly nonbiased logical decision. And then there’s the experiential evidence. Logic has led me down some truly miserable paths by lying to me about what I should do and be. Am I the only one this happens to? I think not.

Now, back to the exercise:

First, select your question. Should I quit my job and travel the world? Should I run a rescue home for runaway pigs? Should I work to become an astronaut and go to Mars? Or in my recent case: should I write screenplays or novels? (Because a few months ago, it sunk into my thick skull that I didn’t have the time or energy to turn both into viable careers.)

Second, imagine you have succeeded in your goal. Really get into it.

You’re wandering through an outdoor market in Greece, rustic bread and a small pot of honey in your bag, the sun warming your shoulders, the tang of apricots and rosemary in the air…

You’re feeding healthy, homemade treats to your dozens of grateful pigs, who gaze adoringly at you as they gently lift the treats from your palm…

You’re listening to your astronaut buddies sing “She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” in celebration of you proving there is life on Mars, as you sip rehydrated champaign and play with a bald, green near-kitten with ruby eyes…

Now, how do you feel physically? Are the shackles on or off?

Should you go for that goal? Will it bring you true joy?

Your body is telling you the answer. Listen.

Character Love

Today I’m writing on my script, and I’m simply in love with it. There’s nothing quite like creating something from absolutely nothing, pulling entire beings from the ether, and bringing them into the world in a blaze of expression and beauty.

My characters have a tough time. They are often in despair. They don’t believe they can face another challenge or climb another metaphorical mountain or survive another second without going completely batty.

But I see something different. I see that they are achingly beautiful and magical and perfect. I wish that they could see themselves the way I see them, and they would understand that they could conquer anything. At the very, very least, they’d feel better about themselves.

And it makes me wonder, is that what we’re like, as humans? Are each of us just simply amazingly beautiful, and we just don’t know it?

Are we THE POINT, and yet have no understanding of that?

Here we are, just taking everything so seriously, trying to accomplish, to acquire, to overcome, to rise above – and I sometimes think that maybe the point isn’t the overcoming or accomplishing or any of that stuff. Maybe the point is growing in our beauty, becoming brighter and more profound. Becoming more aware and alive and vibrant. Becoming more us.

I’m incredibly grateful to witness my own characters’ journeys, these poor beings who I put through such tortures in my stories, knowing that when they come out the other side of their particular fire, they’re going to glow like the sun. And they are going to see that in themselves; they’re going to see how they’ve changed and why.

We should all be so fortunate.

Apologies and Get Out While You Can

It seems that even before I started blogging, there was copious advice out there on how to get people to read your posts. As years went on and the internet chatter got louder, there were more and more experts out there who could guide you in acquiring readers. Now, I receive numerous emails per week giving me advice on how to increase my readership. I even get them in comments through my blog, and ironically, I’ll probably receive some (that I’ll erase) even on this post.

For years, I’ve told myself that to “make it” as a writer, I needed to write lots of content that was important to my readers. I made up blogging schedules that I never kept for long, tried to dream up content that people might like, and basically put on the shackles of what I was “supposed to do.” I also felt like a failure when I didn’t keep the schedule or create enough content of value.

In other words, I did a crappy job and I felt terrible about it. But I’ve discovered a new way to blogging happiness. I’m firing myself.

From now on, I’m going to write what I like, when I like to write it. My posts don’t have to be worthy of my readers;  they just have to be worthy of me – and my standards aren’t nearly as high.

So, fair warning, future posts are not going to be well studied, or wise, or inspiring. In fact, they’re probably going to be random and weird. That’s not a promise either though. Boring and mundane is just as likely.

So if you know you can’t take it and you’re not my mom or my best friend, unsubscribe now. I will not blame you! And no, this isn’t a Lemony Snickett ploy to intrigue you. One of my biggest “gifts” is overwhelming, almost uncomfortable sincerity. Sorry.

And yet I’m not really sorry.

However, I am sorry for not being sorry. So there you have it – a sincere apology.

Blessings!

The Indominable Power of Quiet Acts of Courage

I interviewed a woman last week, and WOW, was her story amazing. She is a lifetime volunteer, always giving, sometimes receiving, and so incredibly humble that she had a hard time reading the article that I wrote about her. One story she told really struck me:

She has volunteered for most of her life and continues to do so, but a compassionate act (to me, a form of volunteering) brought her to live on the island. She was part of the military, stationed in Ontario, when she heard of a single mother asking for help. The single mother, also in the armed forces, was about to be deployed to the west coast, and was desperately asking for a volunteer: would anyone trade postings with her so she could stay with her child and existing support system? The woman I interviewed volunteered to go in her stead, even though she was sacrificing her own home, her own connections and support system. Even though she had to leave a new relationship, a relationship that couldn’t overcome the distance between them.

This was told to me in her quiet voice like it was nothing, and it would have been easy to have taken the story in the way she presented it, like it was no big deal.

But it was a very big deal. That one act of compassion irreversibly changed the lives of at least three people in a massive way, and possibly four if you take the budding relationship into account.

In a world where the audacious gets the story, where the louder and more obnoxious the acts or words are, the more attention they get, I want to put her story forward.

Quiet acts of courage can change the world. None of us are powerless.

Just a Little Run Around the World

Guess what this book is about?

Yes, Rosie Swale Pope really did run around the world, alone, on a continuous journey – including through Siberia, Alaska, and Greenland during the winters! It took her five years and 53 pairs of shoes, and when she was finished, she was 61 years old. She is my new hero.

On her 32,000 km run, she was “followed by wolves, knocked down by a bus, confronted by bears, chased by a naked man with a gun, and stranded with severe frostbite” – plus suffer broken ribs twice (and kept running), was stuck in an Arctic snowstorm for days, and had many more unique and even bizarre experiences. Hers is truly an amazing accomplishment.

Then, when I looked her up online, it looks like TODAY, like January 9th, 2017, she finished her run across the United States, from New York to San Francisco. If that’s right (and it’s not just some weird internet auto-date thing), then what a cool coincidence!

What I thought while reading this book (other than she’s amazing, of course):

Here again is the recurring evidence of the value of dividing big goals into small tasks. Some days, it’s run 20 km, some days it’s a struggle to go 100 meters. Yes, she had days like that. And she kept going, one day at a time, 100 meters at a time, until she accomplished her goal.

But even more impactful to me, I thought about how we limit ourselves. Our goals usually run to paths that are far more trodden than Rosie Swale Pope’s. The sad thing is, even if we want to run the road less travelled, the specific idea of what “our thing” is, may not even cross our minds.

Our first limitation is our thoughts.

I may not want to run around the world – so what do I want to do that I haven’t thought of yet, simply because my thinking is limited?

That question is for all of us.

What great things can we all individually accomplish if we allow our imaginations to fly to the “impossible” and then, 100 meters at a time, turn that dream into “possible” and then reality?

That’s worth some thought.

 

The Law of Diminishing Intent

I heard of the Law of Diminishing Intent a few days ago, and my first thought was, “Wow. There’s an actual law for this?”

Yes. Yes, there is. This is the principle behind it:

We have a great new book idea that is going to change the world. It’s important, it’s beautiful, it’s simply amazing…

OR

We’re going to get healthy. We are going to exercise and eat organic and look fantastic…

OR

We’re going to learn to speak Spanish and then immerse ourselves in the warm and welcoming culture of Colombia on an epic adventure …

OR

Insert your AMAZING GOAL here!

And then with every passing hour, as our usual lives continue to simply be our usual lives – kids need rides, jobs need worked, the TV shows we’re invested in need to be watched, supper needs to be cooked (and it’s delish, so why not take seconds) – the Law of Diminishing Returns kicks in. As we put off our AMAZING GOAL to do our usual activities, our vision and intent – once so sharp and exciting – starts to fade. Our goal eventually becomes something we need to get around to doing, and then we never get around to doing it, even eventually.

We’ve all felt it. We’ve all done it. There’s no shame in it. It’s a normal human response and I’m sure there was some survival value to the tendency to not shake things up if they seemed to be working just fine. BUT we may want this dream to become a reality, and the way I see it, being forewarned that the Law of Diminishing Intent is an obstacle to us all is the same as being forearmed.

Here is a way that I think we can avoid the Law of Diminishing Intent:

1. An hour after we decide to act upon our AMAZING GOAL – which still gives us time to feel the uncomplicated joy – set aside the time we’ll need to accomplish this goal! Literally schedule it in. One hour after supper. Fifteen minutes in the morning. Whatever works for us.

2. As we continue to think about our AMAZING GOAL, adjust it. Because its so new and unformed it may change quite a bit before our first scheduled session. We may even decide it isn’t an AMAZING GOAL after all, and drop it. That’s okay.

3. During our first AMAZING GOAL session, set up the things needed to accomplish our goal. A gym membership? A computer language program? Maybe it’s simply time to work on it, as with writing a book. In that case, prepare our document, and start writing.

4. During our second AMAZING GOAL session, work on our AMAZING GOAL, and for every session after that. If our AMAZING GOAL is ongoing throughout the day, like the goal of becoming healthier, we can use our session to analyze our progress. Either pat ourselves on the back repeatedly, or assess where we didn’t do as well as we hoped, and figure out why and how to change that – without condemnation and shaming ourselves of course. We want our AMAZING GOAL to improve our lives, not make us miserable. Which brings us to…

5. Keep our AMAZING GOAL sessions positive! Be our own best friend. Encourage ourselves. And if we have supportive people in our lives, tell them our AMAZING GOAL so they can support us too.

6. And finally, keep our AMAZING GOAL sessions fresh. If we ever go into our session without feeling the joy, give ourselves another related task that promotes our AMAZING GOAL in a non-direct way. Some examples: Learning Spanish: find a Spanish speaking TV show and give it a try. Writing a book: write a bizarre but fun scene with our characters that we would never put in our book. Better Health: read inspiring stories of others who have accomplished great feats, whether it’s overcoming health problems or running around the world. See what I mean? Nose-to-the-grindstone is not always the fastest way to accomplish anything, and self compassion and forgiveness go a long, long way. We are not machines!

I’m sure there are lots of other ways to overcome the Law of Diminishing Intent. I’d love to hear your ideas – and implement them!

Think Like A Fiction Reader

think-like-a-freak“Think Like A Freak” by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner: Loved the stats. Loved the examples. Loved the entertaining writing. The book just sped by.

What it’s about: Most humans make decisions without using much original thought. We’re hardwired to think a certain way, and because of it, our thinking is predictable and we have common blind spots. The authors give a few ideas of things to do to start thinking like a freak, things like saying “I don’t know” when we actually don’t know (which is the only freaky thinking thing I’m good at), ignore the supposed limits, think like a child, give incentives to others, getting “your garden to weed itself”, and finally, the benefits of coin flipping in place of decision making.

What I thought while reading this book: I’m very typically human. I have the usual patterns and blind spots – and so I was very appreciative of the things I learned while reading this book.

And considering the usefulness of “Think Like A Freak” to me, where I went mentally after reading is a weird leap: Though I learned what “Think Like A Freak” actually outright taught me, I didn’t learn more, because of the nature of non-fiction, or at least the nature of “teaching” non-fiction (as opposed to “real life experience” non-fiction).

Don’t get me wrong. I love non-fiction and I read a lot of it. I’ve learned a huge number of extremely valuable things from non-fiction – but I believe even more strongly now that non-fiction is limited. Why? Because by leading me along a focused track, the non-fiction writer doesn’t give me the mental freedom for diverse thoughts before I’m once again being hustled along by more focused facts, proofs, and logical reasonings.

When it comes to the deeper stuff of life, I find fiction the better teacher. If I head out on a mind tangent in a story, there’s not the same pressure to get back to the proper lesson at hand. Theme can whisper, tempting me off or on various paths, but I don’t have to listen. Even more, characters’ personalities, thoughts, and actions can be profound lessons. For example, I just finished a book by Louise Penny (my next review) that blew me away on the immense value of playing the long game with patience and kindness, and how those qualities might look in a person.

No non-fiction book has ever given me as much value as some fiction. Maybe I’m a freak for being this way, but honestly, since I’m such a typically thinking human, I believe I’m probably in the middle of a vast herd – and I admit, I hope that’s the case. To have fiction deeply inspiring so many people in their lives? To me, that’s a beautiful thing.

Three Years to “Sweep Off”

frodoI’ve been wanting to read Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert for ages, and yet it sat by my bedside table for far longer than I care to admit, mainly because I’d seen the movie and so it was hard to justify the time to read it as well. Thank you “42 books” goal for that justification!

I have now read it, and I must say that I absolutely adored it! Elizabeth Gilbert’s emotional honesty is inspiring, her journey is heartfelt, and third, the woman can WRITE!

Fourth, and best of all, some things that didn’t make a lot of sense in the movie finally made complete sense, including the romance at the end. In the movie, I wondered why they had to add a romance to a perfectly good adventure, as if someone thought that was the only way a “woman’s” movie could possibly end. However, the book explained it very well. The last challenge for Elizabeth to fully heal after a devastating divorce was to prove to herself that she could be in a new romantic relationship and not lose herself.

I know from experience that it’s very hard to write a good script from an existing book, especially when (as in the case of Eat Pray Love) so much of the story’s power is expressed through the protagonist’s thoughts. You can’t put a thought on a screen, and unfortunately, what you put on instead sometimes doesn’t carry the same emotional integrity. As an aside, if you’ve ever wondered at the process that a lot of script writers and a growing number of novelists use to create their stories, click here: The Simplest Tool for Fast, Fun Screenwriting.

What I thought about while reading this book:

I CAN DO THIS!

Yes, I can eat, pray, and love, but that’s not what I mean. It has been a long-time dream of mine to be a nomad, and as I vicariously enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey, I gathered an even stronger belief that I too can travel, learn, explore – when the time is right of course.

To repeat one of my favourite quotes:

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

~ J.R.R. Tolkein, Lord of the Rings.

I look at this as a promise. Maybe that’s why I take my passport with me everywhere, even if I’m just going to the grocery store or to pick up the mail. One of these days, me and my “company of adventurers” will simply sweep away on our own mega-adventure. 🙂

When we do, I’ll keep an account of my travels here. I promise.

So Many Supers!

whisperI picked up Whisper, by Phoebe Kitanidis, from my daughter’s shelf. She is fifteen, so as you might guess, Whisper is a Young Adult novel. The story was entertaining, fast moving, had a nice mix of action and drama, plus family and friend relationships, and even a budding romance. My daughter loved it and I was entertained by it, so it was a win!

What I thought while reading: Like most YA novels these days (including some of my own books: the Whinnies on the Wind series, the Horse Guardian series, and more), Whisper featured a teen who has an extraordinary ability – and I couldn’t help but wonder yet again, why do such a high percentage of YA movies and books feature superhuman teens?

One can say that all demographics enjoy this genre, and that’s true – but the genres available to older readers are far more diverse. We have plenty of non-super protagonists to read about. In YA, the majority of novels include teens with an unusual ability of some sort.

My first thought: having super powers puts protagonists in previously unheard of situations, and therefore may create story interest out of novelty. But then I wonder, after a while wouldn’t reading about a non-super teen become new and fresh? Also, wouldn’t a “normal” character be more relatable?

Maybe the attraction to the super teen is an indicator of how some teens feel powerless in their lives. In the pages of a book, a reader usually feels as powerful as the protagonist, so that very well might be the draw. But do that many teenagers feel powerless? I hope not.

Another option: the super teen phenomena could simply be boredom with the world as it is. Yikes, and almost as sad as the feeling powerless theory. Especially since there is plenty to see in the world when one takes the time to really look.

Maybe it’s because teens are in the process of finding and realizing their own abilities, including those things they’re gifted at. In that case, reading about superhuman teens would be research. And as an aside, it is possible to have a super power. Here’s a list of 50 real-life superhumans.

Then I moved on to the other side of the computer, so to speak. Why do writers write about teens with super gifts?

I can’t speak for other writers of course, but I have tried to infuse my teens’ superpowers with a deeper message. In the case of Evy in the Whinnies on the Wind series, that truth was that we, as the dominant species, need to have compassion for all living creatures and treat them kindly. If, by reading my books, one person does something kind for an animal that they might not otherwise do, then Evy’s superpower has served its purpose.

In Whisper, it is possible that Phoebe Kitanidis also intended to show a deeper truth. Her protagonist’s superpower – to hear others’ thoughts as whispers – gave encouragement to the reader to be authentic to themselves.

Isn’t that something that we all want to hear – or dare I say even need to hear? I believe that on some level, we all know that honoring our most authentic self is how we reach our greatest potential. To me, to be personally authentic is a true super power – and I believe it is to young readers too.