Tag Archives: the world is what you make it

In defense of obstinacy

This post continues Week 3 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. Find other posts here and here. I am counting up towards the residency.

tree trunk bearing sign saying "there is a tree behind you and it will not move for you"

CC image “Mission San Miguel: Where the Trees are Obstinate” via J Maughn on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve been thinking about obstinacy. Obstinacy is a word with low approval ratings. Merriam-Webster defines it as the quality or state of being obstinate; stubbornness; the quality or state of being difficult to remedy, relieve, or subdue.

People in my family are obstinate. Sometimes they look like they are engaging in one-upmanship: I can be more obstinate than you! I know a lot about obstinacy on a personal level.

I’m working on acquiring obstinacy on an artistic level.

Obstinacy among artists isn’t always highly prized by their colleagues. Audiences are happy to consume the fruits of creative obstinacy, but that doesn’t make them want to hang out with obstinate artists.

What sets artists apart

According to a Norwegian study, the artistically inclined differentiate themselves from others by being less “sociable” and more emotionally “unstable,” among more virtuous descriptors, such as associative thinking, desiring originality, being inwardly motivated, and ambition (see a short article on this discussion here).

Emotionally unstable? I’d say this is where the legacy of famous “wild” or “tortured” artists has left its mark: Hemingway, Plath, Faulkner, Woolf, Van Gogh, and so on. Look up “tortured artist” and voila! — find lists and discussions of writers, poets, and painters who had known addictions and known or speculated mental illnesses.

Then we have the sociability issue (I’ll excuse you if you read this as anti-social). In fact, what the article defines as low sociability is a tendency to be “inconsiderate” and “obstinate.”

There’s that word again.

Why being obstinate is an advantage

Frankly, I think obstinacy is under-rated. When faced with a long and daunting task (like writing a book, or pursuing any kind of creative career, for example), it pays to be obstinate. When you need to finish a project, it pays to close the door behind you and keep other people out. The opposite of obstinate is “irresolute.” Yeah, that sounds like a bonus! Another word for irresolute is “indecisive.” Definitely my go-to person. Want to accomplish a goal? Talk to someone who’s obstinate.

Other antonyms for “obstinate,” according to thesaurus.com, include: obedient, pliant, soft, submissive, surrendering, and yielding.

Can you imagine a list of more passive adjectives? I have a hard time myself, and I’m an associative thinker (rimshot). None of these adjectives is an agent of their own destiny. They only want to sit around and be loved.

By contrast, synonyms for “obstinate” include: headstrong, steadfast, tenacious, dogged, indomitable, persistent, relentless, self-willed, strong-minded, and unflinching.

Yes, I am cherry-picking: if you look up “obstinate” you will find plenty of unsavory synonyms. My point is that we overlook the valuable aspects of obstinacy in favor of the more socially “acceptable” modes of being. Obstinate people aren’t perfect, but they DO stand a better chance of accomplishing their goals.

They are agents of their own narrative.

Obstinacy and getting past artistic adversity

Think of Stephen King and his spike. How many rejections did he accumulate before ever being published? Now he is a by-word for literary success. He didn’t get there by surrendering and being pliant.

I’ve wanted to do a writer’s residency for years, but I was always afraid to apply because I didn’t think I had the credentials. Here’s a secret, though (and I’m working on grasping its slippery tail every day): you get credentials by going out and getting credentials.

I’m going to finish this project by being obstinate. I might include some of those lovable adjectives in my book. When I’m done, they might even be me. For a while.

Join me — discover your own artistic obstinacy. Feel free to tell me about it. I’ll celebrate you.


in memory

This blog is a playful look at language. Every second Wednesday, I share with you some thoughts about words, the creative life, and speech. Today, however, I have only one word. Love to my city. Love to you all.

This week’s regularly scheduled post will appear tomorrow, Thursday, September 12th.

God bless.

panoramic view of NYC skyline with twin beams of light on the 10th anniversary of 9/11

CC image “Tribute in Light” courtesy of Beacon Radio. Some rights reserved.

Declaration of Dependence

why it's sometimes a good thing, and what we can learn from being dependent

(Remember to send me your Mad Quotations! So far, song lyrics are well represented. What else have you got up your sleeves?)

American Statue of Liberty from the back

CC image “Statue of Liberty” courtesy of rakkhi on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve begun to think a lot about Dependence recently.

This is a change of pace. Generally speaking, I haven’t thought much about Dependence as a positive trait. I hadn’t considered it a virtue. It mostly surfaced as a counterpoint to a theme I’ve thought a lot about throughout my life thus far, namely Independence.

I’m not just talking about big geopolitical ideas of Repression versus Freedom for groups and in the political arena. I mean personal self-reliance, a sense of individual freedom, the concept that the individual is capable, and therefore responsible, for arranging the circumstances of their life. But before we get into the thorny issue of responsibility, a comment on the idea pair dependence/autonomy. You can take this pair any of a number of ways: physical dependence, which happens when we cannot care for ourselves physically in some way because we are ill or incapacitated, temporarily or for our lives; financial dependence, in which we rely on someone else to supply the money necessary for us to procure the things we need to survive, like food and shelter; emotional dependence; and so forth. So while there are variable permutations of dependence/independence, the root identifying characteristics are the same across all cases.

Generally, I’ve seen dependence as a negative, a burden. Worse yet, I’ve interpreted my own episodes of dependence as pushy neediness and a sign of personal weakness. I didn’t learn this from my immediate family; somehow I taught myself the Stiff Upper Lip principle. I am the oldest child in my family, and (on one side) the oldest of all my cousins, so I got to be a trailblazer by default. I was rewarded with lots of praise whenever I did something well. Perversely, instead of increasing my confidence, throughout my formative years I developed a sustained fear of failure.

An independent personality

Not every aspect of my life was fraught with such deep psychological angst, but if I was unable to do something or figure something out for myself, I got annoyed (with myself). I had something to learn, and pronto.

I don’t like asking people to do things for me. I don’t like owing people.

I can usually figure out how things need to get done. If I don’t know the answer right away, I probably know where I should go to find it. If you give me a task, I’ll take care of it  — and do it well — whether I have to stop at the beginning and sort out a few basic principles or not.

So where does this leave us with our current discussion of Dependence as a virtue?

I’ve gone through a lot of life transitions in the past year and a half. When I embarked on my adventure two thousand miles away across the country, I thought I’d be trailblazing. However, as with any good enterprise, there have been a number of substantial immediate challenges. To my chagrin, I’ve had to accept help, and, more often, ask for it.

I’ve found that Dependence is a great teacher. I’m having to learn — repeatedly, it seems — that it’s OK not to be perfect, and that no one is, overnight, anyway. Also, with each overlapping obstacle, I am learning that there are only certain aspects of my life that I have direct control over or even significant input into. Despite my being fabulous, transition is hard, and it takes time. It takes other people. So I am bumping into my own hubris. I’m learning that the ideal of the Rugged Individualist can be really selfish.

“Collaborator” is a reflexive term: it takes at least two.

Most of all, I’ve had to learn that accepting help can sometimes be a great gift to the giver. Whether it’s time, resources, or an actual physical gift, it’s a blessing to be giving. So I’m learning to accept with grace. Do I still want to be self-reliant? Well, I still would like to know how to fix my car. And I still don’t want to be a secretary. But if I have to learn how to receive now, in order that I can give like crazy later, I’d say that’s a fair trade.

Depend upon it.

What about you? Have you discovered any virtues in Dependence?

Stop and smell the goose poop

Or, finding appreciation in unexpected places

Sometimes it’s time to stop and step in the goose poop.

That’s what I did a couple of days ago.

Canadian geese on a meadow

“Geese” CC image courtesy of Martin Weller on Flickr. Noncommercial license.

I needed to get out of the house. There comes a point every day where I go stir crazy. Not mildly stir crazy. Not something that five minutes’ stroll around the block will cure. But mountain-climbing-sweating-like-a-buffalo-running-5K-with-no-warmup crazy.

By that point in the day — and it seems to arrive about the same time every day — I’ve been working on the computer for hours. It might be for a client or it might be my own writing… or I might’ve procrastinated all day on social media, compulsively following one interesting link to the next.

The onset is usually sudden. One moment, I’m hunched over the table, nose inches from the computer monitor — atrocious posture is a good sign that things need to change — the next, I’m literally pacing my apartment, fantasizing about sprinting through the city streets.

Then it dawns on me that I could solve everything if I just Got Outside.

Thus it is I found myself Outside at Sloan Lake in Northwest Denver last week. Like most Denver city parks I’ve seen, Sloan Lake has been appropriated by hordes of Canadian geese. And they’ve left many mementos of their presence.

Many Canadian geese in winter park

“Geese” CC image courtesy of Overduebook on Flickr. Attribution license.

The last time I remember seeing this many geese in one place was at the county park in New Jersey where my high school track team trained. A paved path made up the outside perimeter of the park, shaped like a sloppy figure eight. Inside each loop was a large grassy area. The inside of the south loop was essentially one big meadow, but the north loop featured a number of sports fields: the de facto soccer pitches, a baseball diamond and field, the throwing cage and field for discus and javelin, the 400 meter track. The geese came in large numbers in the winter, and then they seemed never to leave. Long before experts decided to reclassify the Canadian goose as a non-migratory bird, those of us on the track team were well aware of their sedentary ways.

So it is at Sloan Lake.

The circuit around the lake is a paved walkway. On either side of the walkway, winter-deadened grass an indeterminate color somewhere between yellow, beige, and brown spans the grounds of the park. It is the perfect color for goose poop camouflage.

Generally, I prefer running on unpaved surfaces because it’s nicer on the joints. However, the advantage to the walkway at Sloan Lake is that it’s possible to ascertain where the goose poop is, and whether or not you are stepping in it. Usually you are… the walkway is a veritable minefield. But it’s where I started, in a vain effort to keep the bottoms of my shoes poop-free.

The area around the lake affords park visitors a clear view to the Rocky Mountains. In between dodging little green-brown-yellow minefields, I noticed that clouds were spreading in a bank above the peaks, although the rest of the sky was cloudless. The sun was low, first behind the clouds and then dipping behind the mountains, which became mere silhouettes. I kept losing my pace because I had to turn my head and look. The light was transparent and yet gold at the same time, and the frozen lake was very blue. Some geese had settled on an open stretch of water to the west, and they looked serene, even appropriate.

As I completed my circuit on the eastern shore, I looked back across the snowy landscape to the dusk coming down from the mountains. The clouds separated two identical color sequences above the tops of the highest peaks: mountains, gold, pink, blue; clouds, gold, pink, blue.

A cacophony of honking and the squeak of wings behind me heralded a flyover. I turned and ducked, afraid that at least one of them would go potty as they passed overhead. Instead, they flew past me without incident and curved out over the lake, in a long line from north to south, easily more than 50 birds together. They became a dark band against the bluing western sky as they went, an eyebrow between the lake and the clouds. The honking and creaking faded, and I was left with a feeling of joy in their passing, their being there at that moment, the way they graced the sky — truly in their element.

That was worth stepping in some goose poop.

=== ===

Do you ever feel a sudden need to change your surroundings?  What unexpected beautiful things did you discover as you went?

I like the rain

(and you do, too. You just don't know it yet)

Why do I do this to myself?

image courtesy of layoutsparks.com

When I was in New Zealand training for the second women’s team going to the World Ultimate Club Championships in Perth, Australia, we arranged several “training camps” for the members of all our teams (we had five: a men’s, two women’s, a master’s, and a co-rec squad) to actually play together. We had folks from all over the country, both North and South Island, who had no regular opportunity to do so before the tournament. The folks in Christchurch, or Wellington, or Auckland, knew each other pretty well; but the teams were a geographical hodgepodge. Some things we could do remotely, such as logistics and brainstorming plays. But team chemistry really means training and playing together.

And the weather was not cooperating.

The second camp, in Wellington in the winter, was a three-day event. Our time was limited. We didn’t have the option of re-scheduling. Scheduling the original dates had been hard enough. Those of us from out of town flew in on cheap Air NZ flights, and those from Welly hosted all of us — sometimes up to four or five guests — on floors and couches. Together, we contemplated our miserable luck with the weather.

It wasn’t just a little drizzle. This was a decisive, stay-put type of rain. It rained all night before the start of camp, and it was still raining the following morning. The fields were soaked. Nobody wanted to get out of the car, which was where we changed into our cleats, wincing internally about the instant we had to set foot on the saturated ground.

picture courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

One of my teammates was a kindergarten teacher in Christchurch. She was cheery at all times, something that appears to be a constitutional requirement of pre-K and grammar school teachers everywhere. As we huddled together in the cold and wet before warmup, she told us about a song she made her moody students sing when faced with nasty weather. “I like the rain,” she said, in a happy sing-song. “I like the rain. One, two, three, four…. I like the rain!”

I felt like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, but I kept my mouth shut — until we started our warmups. Up and down and around the fields as we moved more quickly, high stepping and doing cariocas, we chanted as a unit, getting louder as we went. Squish, squish, went our feet, our shoes entirely soaked and our socks as well, sending up sprays of mud onto ourselves and anyone running close by. The rain wet our hair and seeped through our clothes. “I like the rain,” we sang, then shouted. “I like the rain! One, two, three, four! I like the rain!” Our ridiculous behavior did not go unnoticed by the other squads, warming up on adjacent fields. In response, we reacted like any good kindergartners would, prancing and throwing our arms in the air, hamming it up for the crowd.

And a remarkable thing happened. By the time we reconfigured to start drilling our plays, we actually did like the rain.

Strength in numbers.

Some things, we really can’t change. We don’t have any control over traffic lights, if we don’t work in the city department that programs them; we can’t control whether our kids don’t feel well today or whether the grocery store has run out of the most inexpensive brand of butter, or whether our boss is in a lousy mood. Some of us have no control over the heat in our building; and we can’t control the weather. The only thing we have any say over, really, is how we relate to these things. But here’s the dirty secret: relating is contagious.

It’s a good thing, too. Because I’ve chosen to run in the mud again.

image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

In the next week, I start my first ever writing workshop. It means I’m going — on purpose — to share my work, and not just some finished product, but the bones of my work. It’s a prospect both thrilling and horrifying.

The beauty as well as the yuck of writing is that it requires sinking into my own head. Sometimes it’s glorious, and sometimes the field is soggy and I don’t even want to step out onto it because I know I’ll have wet feet for the next several hours. It’s cold, and my socks will get ruined.

I just need to remember, I’m not alone out there.

Strength in numbers.

One, two, three, four….

I like the rain.