On Gratitude

She sat in her usual chair, her rolling walker next to her.  I sat across from her in my usual spot on the couch.  This is how we’ve started my piano lessons for the last few years.  We sit in the living room and catch up.  Sometimes we don’t even make it to the piano there’s so much to discuss.

“Have you ever seen this book?” she asked me on my first visit of the new year.  She pulled a fairly large pink book off the tray of her walker.  “Yes!  I have it!” I said.  The book she held in her hand was Sarah Ban Brethnach’s  Simple Abundance.  “Well, I’m doing it again this year,” she said.  “The last time I did it, it really changed how I looked at my life and I think it’s time to do it again.”  “Hmm…” I said, “I’ll have to dig mine out – I know exactly where it is.  I’ve never actually done the whole book.”

For those of you that don’t know, it’s a book with something to reflect on each day of the year.  It’s subtitle is A Daybook of Comfort and Joy.  I like that subtitle even better than the title.  It came out in 1995 and it was all the rage – especially after the author appeared on Oprah.

I found my book, and started reading a passage each day.  Early on she does ask you to physically do one thing in particular: start a gratitude journal.  Each night before you go to bed, pull out a pretty journal and write into it three things you’re grateful for.  She says it’s a non-negotiable.  “…You simply will not be the same person two months from now after conscioulsy giving thanks each day for the abundance that exists in your life.”

Well, she’s right.  I’ve only been doing it for 10 days or so, and what I’ve noticed so far is that things that in the past would have bothered me roll off my back now.  Not all things, mind you.  But most of the little things – things that I would have beat myself up about, things I would have let ruin my day, they’re just not such a big deal anymore.  For example, I started teaching Anatomy and Physiology at a local college.  I’ve taught the lab for a while now, but this is the first semester I’m teaching the lecture.  I was going to explain all the things that have gone wrong since I started the class, but as I think about writing them it seems such a waste of time – they’re really just not that big of a deal anymore.  I’ll just put it this way: technology wasn’t working out for me.  But I improvised, moved on, and neither me nor my class are any worse for wear.

As I sat in the waiting room at the tutoring center where I work recently, I started chatting with the mother that was sitting there waiting for her daughter.  I can’t recall how we got to the topic, but I asked if she had the book Simple Abundance. “Oh, yes,” she said, “that’s an old one!”  I laughed.  “I know, but my piano teacher is doing it again this year, so I pulled mine out and I started doing the gratitude journal.”  “That’s so funny that you should mention that,” she said.  “My daughter has been having a tough time of things and I’ve been thinking of having her do that.  I’m going to go home and pull mine out.”

This is one of those things I love about life: that a 70+ year old grandmother can inspire a 33 year old single woman who can then pass on a good thing to the mother of a teenage daughter.  And who knows where it will go from there?

So today, give thanks.  For three things.  Write them down.  Every day.  Watch your life change:)

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“What’s this about?” she asked as she took a seat next to me and picked up my book off the table.

“I’m not sure,” I said.  “A friend just lent it to me and I haven’t even started it yet.”  I was sitting at the local cafe and coffee shop eating my lunch.  My visitor was one of the owners.

“I was going to read it, but then I found this Oprah magazine on the table,” I explained.  “I figured I could read my book at home, but can’t bring this magazine home.”

“Yes, you can,” she said.  “People borrow my magazines all the time and return them when they’re done.  That’s why I bring them here – I subscribe to them, and when I’m finished  I want other people to enjoy them.  Take it home.”

“I drive by here all the time,” I said.  “I can drop it off easily enough.”

“Do that – take it home.”

“I’ve seen this book before,” she said, flipping through it.  “But just haven’t gotten around to buying it.  I should read this.”  The book was titled “101 Things to Do Before Going To Heaven.”  I never much cared for these types of “101” or “1001” books – I felt too pressured to do all the things they listed, and then realized one person’s idea of the “1001 places to see before you die” was not necessarily in line with my idea of the places I wanted to see.  But the title of this one had caught my eye.

My visitor proceeded to tell me about some troubles she’d been having in her life over the past year.  She explained that this year she’s going to get out and do things she’d always wanted to do.

“Like what?” I asked, thinking maybe she was planning a trip to some far-flung locale.  I was quite wrong.  She named a couple local sites she hadn’t yet seen or hadn’t been to in years.  She also talked about going on dates with her husband.  Her life had been so busy she hadn’t been able to enjoy such simple things.

“If you wouldn’t mind,” she said, “can I borrow this book when you’re done?”

“Take it now,” I said.

“Oh – no – you haven’t even read it yet!”

“No, really,” I said.  “My friend gave me four other books.  Go ahead and read it.”

“Thank you – I’m sure I could finish reading it in two days.”

“No need – take your time,” I said.  At that, she looked over to the counter.  “I need to go help some customers,” she explained as she got up.  “The Real Simple magazines are good, too,” she offered.  “Thanks,” I said.  “I’ll just borrow this one for now.”

This is why I like local places.  I can’t recall ever having the owner of a Starbucks sit down with me and ask about the book I was reading.  Yes, the person who takes my order might make small talk.  But I read that they’re told to do that.  On purpose.  To make you feel a connection – to your “local” Starbucks.  Nothing against Starbucks.  That same book made me really like the company.  But there’s something about a truly local place.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but this little scene has something to do with it.

Life (in a nutshell)

Life consists in learning to live on one’s own, spontaneous, freewheeling: to do this one must recognize what is one’s own – be familiar and at home with oneself. This means basically learning who one is, and learning what one has to offer to the contemporary world, and then learning how to make that offering valid.

Thomas Merton. Love and Living. (New York: Harcourt, 1965).  P 3

On Drive

In a recent interview I heard on NPR, Daniel Pink talked about what motivates us.  In his new book (Drive), he explains that companies who motivate their employees with either compensation or punishment have it all wrong.  Instead, he says, there are three things that motivate us.  And he says these three things don’t just apply in the corporate world (because if that was the case, I would have changed the channel).  They also apply to education, and parenting among other things.

Those three things are autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Now I fully admit that I did not yet read his book yet.  However, from this interview I could easily see how what he was saying applied to the way in which I choose my lines of work.

Let’s take math tutoring.  I’ve been a private contractor with the same non-profit tutoring company for four years now.  I could make more money if I went out on my own, so why don’t I?  Well, first of all it’s not about the money for me.  Yes, I need some to live on.  Yes, they pay quite well to begin with.  But as Daniel Pink says, there are people that are  externally motivated (Type X), and people that are internally motivated (Type I).  Those of you that are Type X are motivated by a reward, a prize, compensation.  The Type I folks are motivated by an inner sense of purpose.  There’s nothing specifically wrong, he said, with either – but the recognition of what type people are is helpful.  I’m Type I, so the fact that I could make more money tutoring on my own doesn’t motivate me.

What motivates me?  First, autonomy.  I’m a private contractor.  The big rule I love about being a PC is that the company can’t tell me when to work – I tell them.  So each August, the scheduler for the company calls me up and asks which days and times I’d like to take students.  At any point in the year if I want to take on more students, open a different day, or change the days/times I see students, I call her up, and together we make it work.  That “together” thing is key – I can be a PC, but if every time I want to make a change I get guilt for it, I’m not sticking around.  This company knows that happy employees are to their benefit.  And they thank us all the time telling us that without us as tutors, they wouldn’t have a business.  They know that without that autonomy, I wouldn’t be working there.

The second motivator that keeps me there is mastery.  I’m the kind of person that, once I master something, it loses its interest to me.  If I can find a new challenge (something new to “master”), I’ll stay at that job.  If I can’t, I leave.

I’ve been a math tutor on and off for over 12 years.  Algebra, Geometry, and Trig don’t change much.  You might think I would have “mastered” those subjects by now.  That’s mostly true- though a few times each semester I see a new way a teacher has taught a student something, and it’s my job to figure out that new method so I can help the student understand it.  (My first responsibility is to go with what the teacher teaches.  If my student doesn’t understand that method, I’ll try another.  But once they master my method, I relate it back to the method they were taught.)

But a few new methods don’t keep me motivated.  I may have nearly mastered my subjects, but what I haven’t mastered (and I wonder if it’s possible) is teaching.  Every student is different.  Though I have a few “return” students year to year, I can see an average of 40 new students over the course of a school year – students that I’ve never met, and therefore don’t know what motivates them, how they learn, what else is going on in their lives that influences their learning.  I’ve said that math is really just the medium through which I help students with other things in life.  It’s through math that I teach some how to ask for help, teach them how to speak up for themselves, teach them about the choices we make and the consequences of those choices, about how their short term decisions can affect long term outcomes.  This is the stuff I haven’t mastered.

The third motivator Pink talks about is purpose.  I want to feel like what I’m doing serves some sort of greater good.  Education is something I believe in.  I don’t believe we’re doing the best we can, and tutoring is my little way of helping.  The best compliment I ever got from a parent was this: “Though her grade didn’t improve as much as we initially wanted, what you did for my daughter as a person was worth every penny.”  That’s why I do this.

Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose.  I can go down the list of every job I’ve ever had and tell you why I did or didn’t like it based on these three things.  As usual, I think Daniel Pink has nailed it.

On Garbage

After spending five hours in bed one Sunday morning reading “No Impact Man,” I’m starting to notice packaging a lot more.  The author, while sifting through his garbage, noticed it was one of most popular things he threw out.  Same here.  I saw somewhere that 80% of the stuff we buy is disposable.  Guess where that’s going?

So I’ve started to make a conscious effort to avoid packaging.  I’ll eat in the cafe instead of getting takeout.  That way I’m eating on reusable plates with reusable silverware instead of taking home a large plastic box that will take up a lot of space in a landfill somewhere.

Starbucks and Borders both knock a few cents off the price of your morning java if you bring your own cup.  Even if your local coffee shop doesn’t do this, how hard is it to bring your own cup and ask?

I buy a lot of my food at Farmer’s Markets (yes, they do exist in winter in a lot of cold weather locales).  I bring my own bags.  A fringe benefit?  Recipe advice.   At the farmer’s market, I’ll pick up an acorn squash.  “You know what to do with that?” the farmer asks.  “I usually just roast it, maybe put some brown sugar on it,” I respond.  “Maple syrup,” he says.  “Ohhhh…I’d never thought of that!” “Once you try it, you’ll never go back.”  He was right, of course.

In other garbage-reducing news, my godmother has sworn off paper towels.  I’m working on it.  I cut up an old worn towel to use to clean with instead of paper towels.  If I’m having cheese and crackers, I put them on a plate instead of a paper towel.  I clean up spills with the sponge instead of a paper towel.  (My cousin, at hearing this, said, “I’m a germophobe.  A sponge seems dirty.”  I’ve read that if you just let your sponge dry out, it kills the bacteria.  Or you can microwave it for 30 seconds, or throw it in the dishwasher.)

I’m going to attempt to get rid of paper napkins, too.  I’ll replace them with cloth, reusable ones.  More laundry, yes.  But still much better for the environment.

I thought I was doing pretty good with this until I went out to dinner the other night and asked to take my leftovers home.  Out they came in a styrofoam container.  I might start leaving a container in my car for just these situations.  Extreme?  If you think that’s extreme, you should read “No Impact Man.”  Could you live without electricity?  Without buying anything new for an entire year (except underwear and socks)?

No one is saying we have to do all these things…but reading books about those that go much farther than we’d ever dream inspires us to just do one or two things a little differently….

On Conflict

I was watching the PBS series “This Emotional Life” today and after an hour of saying, “Oh – this is so good I should be taking notes,” I finally wrote something down.  One of the experts said that in our relationships we should “go toward the conflict”  – don’t avoid it, don’t suppress it.  “Conflict,” he said, “is where we capture different perspectives.”

Wow.  Isn’t that what conflict is about?  Two people (or more) with different perspectives?  And isn’t it amazing when you have that light bulb moment where you finally “get” where someone is coming from?   That the massage he doesn’t want to give you isn’t because he doesn’t love you, but because he has an old hand injury?  That’s it’s not about what you cooked for dinner, but about the fact that what you cooked was what he was eating the night his dad left the dinner table and never came back?

This got me to thinking about the conflict of my student yesterday who is choosing a major her father wants rather than what she wants.  Instead of going towards the conflict, she’s suppressing her feelings about it, avoiding the topic.  I’m sure her parents are wonderful people.  Her dad’s perspective might be, “She’s just like me – she’s good at science and math and wants to be an engineer.”  He might just not know what her perspective is – because she never brought it up or he never asked I don’t know.  It might be hard, but wouldn’t it be better in the long run if she brought it up now instead of two years into college?  I can’t say I had the courage at 17 to do that, but you get what I’m saying.

So what’s the conflict you’re avoiding? Why not try to face it, and to learn about the other perspective?

How many people actually do what they went to school for?

“Did you hear back from colleges yet?” I asked one of my tutoring students as I flipped through her file. “Yes, I got into three, but am still waiting for responses from a couple,” she replied.

“What major did you say you were going for?” I asked after realizing I hadn’t noted it anywhere.  “Engineering,” she said with a depressing tone – one of almost utter defeat.

“Well, you don’t sound too thrilled about it!” I exclaimed.  “I’m not,” she laughed.  “So why did you pick it?”  “Well, I like science and math, and so engineering made sense.  But when I read the descriptions of the programs, they sounded boring.  But my dad’s an engineer, so he’s kind of pushing for it.”

I was about to tell her that she’s the one who will have to work in that field, not her father, so it’s she who should like it.  But then I caught myself and realized she doesn’t even have to work in the field she gets her degree in (I was living proof of this!).  Then, I went back even further and realized she doesn’t even have to choose that major!

As my mind raced with how best to share these thoughts, she offered, “but all these schools have other programs that interest me, too, like Marine Biology.”

“Oh good,” I said with a sigh of relief, “so you could switch if you find you don’t like engineering.”

I proceeded to tell her a little of my story.  I told her that I knew in my sophomore year that I didn’t want to be a physical therapist, but up until that point I’d never done anything against my parents wishes.  And my parents wished I’d stay in the PT program.  As with many people, she was surprised to hear my degree was in physical therapy.  Probably because I was tutoring her in Calculus.  Two subjects not so clearly related….

So I took this as another one of those “everything happens for a reason” times.  Honestly, I didn’t think I was doing so well at helping her with Calculus and was contemplating passing her off to another tutor.  Whether I do that or not, I realize the reason our paths crossed may not have been for Calculus help at all.