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Posts Tagged ‘inspiration’

Six Months

I am writing this on Wednesday, and today is the six-month anniversary of the day I started dancing again. Many weeks ago, I put this date into my day planner along with a note to write about it.

Then I sprained my toe, and I haven’t danced for three weeks. But I decided I’d still write this post.

Then last night a colleague of mine who I really liked and admired died. So it’s been a hard day. I thought about not writing anything at all. I thought, how could I write about something as happy as dancing on a day like today?

I thought, why am I so upset? I haven’t seen this colleague of mine for years and years. But I am. I am upset. We do not need to be in regular contact with people in order for them to be important to us. We do not need to be close to people in order for them to have impact on us.

And then I thought, I will write about dancing anyway, because this friend of mine, Jimmy, he was a comedian and an actor and a director and a drama teacher, and he was one of those people who seemed so fully alive and so fully committed to and passionate about what he was doing. So it feels apropos for me to be writing today about something about which I feel passionate.

I haven’t danced for three weeks, and I feel a bit sulky about it. I really, really miss it. I think all the time about when I’ll be able to dance again, and every week, I think, well, not this week, because my toe still really hurts, but maybe next week. I can’t wait till I’m all healed up and ready to go.

But here’s what is incredible to me. Before six months ago, I hardly ever danced. And before a few years ago, I didn’t even have the option of dancing. No dancing. None. Ever.

How my life has changed.

How I have loved the last six months. Even the last three weeks of that, because even though I can’t dance right this minute, I know I will be dancing. It’s only a matter of time.

I feel like dancing has changed me, and during this last period of time of enforced non-dancing, this has been interesting to watch. Because now that I’m not dancing, it could change back, right?

But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like dancing hasn’t merely changed the way I exercise, or the strength of my muscles, or my priorities in terms of my schedule. It feels like dancing has changed something inside of me. To have a physical means of expression, and one for which I don’t place huge amounts of pressure on myself to be perfect, has grounded me in a way I didn’t expect.

Photo by Richard Seely.

Photo by Richard Seely.

And then there’s the joy. I am so happy when I’m dancing, I feel like my happiness must be shining out of me like a beacon. I am happy thinking about going dancing ahead of time, and I’m happy after going dancing, while I’m driving home to good music and then eating my instant oatmeal (brown sugar and maple flavored, of course). And I am the happiest of all when I’m in the flow of the dance, buoyed by good music, connected to my partner, and experiencing the joy of a moving creation.

When I am dancing, there is nothing else in the world I’d rather be doing. And having that space to be so devoted and focused is extremely precious.

So on this, the six-month anniversary of rediscovering this joy, I hope for much more dancing in my future. I wish I could dance this week. For myself, to celebrate this milestone, and also for Jimmy. Thanks for showing us how to live with gratitude and passion, my friend. You are an inspiration.

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Hope as Fuel

Let’s talk about hope today, shall we?

One of my friends posted this great thought about hope on Facebook, which I cannot share with you word-for-word because privacy, but he basically talked about the importance of maintaining a store of hope in order to continue accomplishing things in life. And then another friend texted me about hope a day or two later, and I said, “Yeah, I’m going to blog about this now.”

Hope really can be quite useful, I think particularly for more long-lasting and slow-to-reach goals and desires and projects. I don’t need hope to do small daily tasks around the house, but I do need hope to keep writing, for example. Without hope, it would be so much harder to discipline myself to work and do things that I find unpleasant or difficult.

So then, how do we cultivate hope? And not false hope that might keep us stuck, but rejuvenating, inspirational hope?

  1. We can do our best to be cognizant of progress. Instead of focusing only (or even primarily) on a big end goal, if we can be aware of what we have achieved, this maintains hope. It can be hard to notice these smaller shifts and achievements, but being able to identify progress I’ve made keeps me inspired to keep spending effort.
  2. We can give ourselves things to look forward to. I’m a huge practitioner of this one. If I don’t have anything at all to look forward to in the next six months, something has probably gone horribly awry with my life because I always make sure I have something, and usually the more somethings, the better. I often use trips for this purpose, but really there’s a lot of choice here: events, holidays, birthdays, parties, concerts, plays, movies, food, friend time, books, a day with nothing scheduled, and so on.
  3. We can reframe. Catching our negative thoughts and figuring out how to transform them into less harmful ones (or even actively positive ones) cultivates a smoother state of mind and, you guessed it, more hope.
  4. We can help other people. There is something about building connection that creates hope. It can pull us out of ourselves and remind us of the things we think are important.
  5. We can choose to celebrate other people’s successes. Your friend reaches a goal that you desperately want to hit yourself. Here is your choice: take your friend’s success as a reminder that the goal IS possible and celebrate with her, or feel unhappy with yourself for not being there yet. The first one builds hope; the second tears yourself down.
  6. We can remind ourselves of the inevitability of change. All things change, and so in this sense, there is always hope. Not of a specific outcome, necessarily, but sometimes all we need to is to know that things can be different.
  7. We can attempt to be flexible. Speaking of specific outcomes, the less attached we can be to specifics and the more we can adjust to what’s going on around us, the easier it is for us to maintain a general feeling of hope.

Hope without action is empty, but hope combined with action keeps us motivated to continue working towards our goals.

What do you do to replenish your stores of hope?

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I’ve been thinking a lot about grief and loss and inspiration and kindness.

How are you going to tie all of those ideas together in an essay, Amy? Yeah, I’m not really sure either. But I am going to try.

When I first checked my phone on Tuesday morning, I learned that fantasy writer Graham Joyce had died. I felt sad. Sad because many of my friends are grieving the loss of someone important to them. Sad because the one time I met Graham, he had been kind and generous to me.

Sad because then I thought about Jay, and I miss him. I don’t talk about it much. I’m not sure there’s very much to say. The sadness is here, inside of me. That’s all.

We try so hard to distract ourselves, and others, from the reality of this sadness. We want so badly to fix, to take away pain, whether it’s our own pain or somebody else’s. Distraction, cheering up, intellectual discussions about philosophical implications.

But at some point we have to stop all of that and just sit. Sit with sadness. Sit with whatever emotions there are. Turn off the fixer, because there is no fixing death. There is no fixing loss. There is no fixing of so many things.

Sometimes there is someone who is willing to sit with us so we will not be alone. But we are not always so lucky. And sometimes being alone makes it easier. Either way, at some point, the sitting must occur.

Graham Joyce’s final blog post is being widely quoted because it is brilliant. This is my favorite part:

“Actually I know what the dragonfly said.  It whispered: I have inhabited this earth for three hundred million years old and I can’t answer these mysteries; just cherish it all.

And in turn the Heron asks, with shocking clarity as it flies from right to left and left to right: why can’t our job here on earth be simply to inspire each other?”

Cherish. There is so much that is beautiful and good in the world, and it deserves the attention. It is so easy to miss seeing it; it’s so easy for it to be drowned out by the ugly and the ignorant and the damaging. But the good still matters; it keeps us going.

Inspire. We all need a hand up from time to time, or a new idea, or a fresh way of seeing. We help each other to be creative and kind and informed and engaged. We help each other to be better than we could be on our own.

Photo Credit: Eden-Lys via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Eden-Lys via Compfight cc

I’m reminded of another quote I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s from E. Lockhart’s novel We Were Liars: “Be a little kinder than you have to.”

That’s it. Be a little kinder. I hear these words in my head several times a week. They help me get out of my head when I’m about to stand up for myself or deliver bad news. They help me get past the empathy response that encourages me NOT to stand up for myself, because they give me a guide for how to behave that honors that empathy while also taking care of myself. They remind me that I can be clear and firm and honest without being unnecessarily cruel.

And they encourage me to a little kinder to myself as well.

Cherish, inspire, and be a little kinder when you can. Yes. That is what I’d like to spend my life doing.

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My favorite movie is Star Wars. Star Wars: A New Hope, to be precise. I chose this favorite movie at some point during high school, and it stuck.

Now, some people will argue that The Empire Strikes Back is a superior movie, and I don’t disagree with this. However, high school me had a copy of Star Wars on VHS (without commercials, even, which was a big score) that I could watch over and over again. High school me did not have a copy of The Empire Strikes Back. (And when I eventually got one, it DID have commercials.) So Star Wars has the nostalgia win there. Also, The Empire Strikes Back has that cliffhanger ending, which means you don’t get a complete viewing experience unless you then watch Return of the Jedi, and Return of the Jedi is definitely NOT my favorite movie. Whereas Star Wars has a complete story arc contained in its two hours.

Star Wars has a lot of things going for it. Light sabers. Comic relief droids. Space ships. The neat blue lines that signal a jump to lightspeed. A kick ass princess with a sharp tongue (although alas, she is the only female character, which I consider to be one of the movie’s worst flaws). A walking carpet. An iconic bad guy who can be identified by sound, not just sight. High stakes. Guts, glory, and scoundrels.

The iconic villain also has a very recognizable silhouette.

But the reason Star Wars is my favorite movie? The emotions it evokes in me and the way I feel after I watch it. When Luke succeeds against all odds, blowing up the Deathstar and saving the entire Rebel Alliance, it reminds me of what is possible. It pumps me up and makes me feel ready to tackle my own life, my own goals, and my own problems. This feeling was valuable back when I was eleven and has continued to be inspiring ever since.

I love that Luke is just some guy, and nobody really thinks he has what it takes to make such a difference. (Well, no one except Obi Wan, anyway.) But through hard work (we don’t get to see it, but it’s implied that he’s spent large amounts of time on flying and target practice before the movie starts), courage, and belief in himself, he is able to rise above other people’s expectations of him and do his true best.

We all receive negative messages about our capabilities at some point. There are always the naysayers who think (and sometimes tell us) that we don’t have what it takes to accomplish our goals. Sometimes the loudest naysayer of all is inside our own heads. What I love about Star Wars is that it reminds me to ignore these naysayers. It reminds me that I won’t know my capabilities unless I fully commit. It encourages me to dream and strive and achieve my own personal best.

What about you? What movie inspires you? What movie makes you feel like you can take on the world?

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I have a writer friend who is having a bit of a tough time right now, and I am writing this for you. (You know who you are.)

It is okay, natural, and possibly even healthy that you are having trouble embracing your writer identity right now. Take your time about it–it’s an important identity to get to know. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: your writer identity is like your super hero identity. Yes, I’m serious. Right now you’re learning to find the super hero within.

On the outside, writers may appear like normal human beings. Some of us are frumpy or bad dressers, some of us need haircuts. Many of us wear spectacles. Some of us have unexpected hair colors or holes in our bodies that weren’t there when we were born. Some of us have a clear affinity to steam punk and corsets, others to shapeless T-shirts with geeky slogans on them. A lot of us are introverts, and we can often be found with our noses stuck in a book (or a smart phone, or a Kindle, or…). But all of this is just a facade, a way to divert attention from our secret identities.

All writers are super heroes. We fight ignorance and apathy, loss of wonder and despair. We entertain people who deeply need to be distracted from pain or sickness. We make people think of consequences, both of personal actions and society’s decisions. We remind people of what it is to be human, both the good and the bad, and we inspire people to strive for the best.

Many writers live in the stars. We dream of times past and future, reinterpreting what has happened and twisting together visions of what is to come. We deal in possibilities, in vast heroics and small personal acts of courage, in envisioning worlds that we hope for and fear. We keep the spark of ideas alive, even ideas that aren’t enjoying their time in the public spotlight, so that someday when we need them, they will still be available to us.

We create characters who take the proxy role of mother and father, husband and wife, best friend, diabolical arch-nemesis, and noble mentor. We teach people how to live, how to survive through hard times, and how to die. We serve as society’s mirror and conscience simultaneously.

Sometimes we get tired. Sometimes we fall short. Sometimes we feel like we’re not really super heroes after all, and we don’t belong in the Super Hero League of Awesomeness. Maybe we lack some credentials, or maybe we don’t know the right people, or maybe we’re not good enough yet. Maybe not enough people read our stories or buy our books or follow us on Twitter. We are unsung, unappreciated, without creative mojo. We toil away in our anonymity and obscurity, wondering if what we’re doing even matters.

But oh, my friend, when you ask yourself this question (as I know you will, because we all do), answer with a resounding Yes! It is the lot of a super hero to be handed thankless tasks and toil away with little personal reward. But we continue because of our conviction that it matters; that we can, in our own humble way, make a difference.

We give the world its voice. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.

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I often pretend that I’m eighty years old.

When I was eighteen, I went away to college and began studying music. My life wasn’t ideal: my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer that year, I had wicked insomnia, there were various college dramas to deal with, I had a bum ankle and was constantly sick, I wasn’t always making the progress I wished to make. But I remember very clearly walking home from the music building one spring day. I could see the ocean as I left the building, the sun was out, I was surrounded by beautiful redwood trees, and I was able to spend all my time studying music, which I was truly passionate about. And I thought, “There is nothing I’d rather be doing with my life right now.”

That’s a powerful thought, isn’t it? I decided then that I would try to live as much of my life as possible in the same way, and that is still one of my goals today. There are many things that I was wrong about when I was eighteen, but that wasn’t one of them. One of the ways I can check on myself and see how I’m doing is to pretend that I’m eighty. Whenever I’m making a decision or evaluating something I’m doing, I ask myself: How will I feel about this when I’m eighty? First of all, will I even remember it? (If the answer is no, then it’s probably not all that important, and if nothing else, I can bring down my worry level a notch or two.) If I do this, will I be glad I tried it when I look back at my life? Will I regret passing up this opportunity? Or will I wish I’d played it safer or made a different decision?

I was talking to a former student the other day who has decided not to pursue music professionally, at least for right now. She went to professional school for musical theater for a while and began to hate it, even though she had previously been amazingly passionate about the subject. So now she is studying a different subject. And you know what? Even though she ultimately changed her mind, I think she did the right thing going through the musical theater program. Because if she hadn’t, then when she was eighty, she might have regretted not pursuing her dream. Now she knows that she doesn’t want that kind of life, and she can move forward without regrets.

From photobucket.com by notapooka

According to this article, one of the top regrets of people on their deathbeds is not having followed their dreams. (I highly recommend you read the entire article.) Of course, we can’t always be doing exactly what we want to do. No one wants to sit around recovering from a root canal gone wrong or clean the bathroom or deal with any of a whole host of problems and difficulties that are part of our daily lives. But I think all the unpleasant parts are rendered more manageable if we can find and highlight the aspects of life that are so wonderful to us that they dwarf all else. For me in college, that passion was for music. Nowadays, I find it in my relationships, in writing fiction and this blog, in teaching, in travel. When I’m spending time on any of those things, I get the same feeling, that there is nothing else I’d rather be doing.

Steve Jobs gave a great insight in a Stanford commencement address that I think about a lot:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

So now I’ll ask you the same questions: if today was the last day of your life, would you want to do what you’re doing? When you’re eighty, how will you feel about the decisions you’re making today?

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A few weeks ago I was asked to write an essay, and the only requirement was that it should be inspirational. At first I wasn’t too worried: People had told me they found my essays inspirational in the past, so it was obviously something of which I am capable. Then I started to overthink and wonder if I could be inspirational on command. And finally I was given a more narrow topic (kindness) and the rest is history.
In that middle stage of overthinking, I asked myself what I find inspirational. And the first thing I thought of was one of my favorite books, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.
I want to be Anne Shirley (the protagonist) when I grow up. I’ve wanted to be her since the first time I read the book, which I received on my ninth birthday, and I imagine I will always want this. Possibly one of the biggest compliments someone could pay me would be to compare me to Anne. (Not that this will ever happen, since people don’t tend to go around comparing people to fictional characters. Except for Fred from the TV show Angel. I get that comparison a lot.)

Why do I love Anne? She’s wildly imaginative and creative, she’s intelligent and ambitious, and she always has good intentions. But she’s not perfect; she makes mistakes all the time, and she has character flaws that she struggles with (her temper, her vanity, her tendency to look before she leaps, an imagination that is occasionally a little bit too good). Her imperfections make her human, make her someone I can aspire to be. Perhaps L.M. Montgomery included so many faults because of the conventions of that era’s children’s literature to include morality lessons, but to me it never comes across as preaching.

At the beginning of the first book, Anne’s had a really hard life. She’s a poor orphan who has spent all of her life in and out of various dysfunctional foster families and institutions. Her schooling has been irregular, and she hasn’t been treated particularly well. She has every reason in the world to be hard, bitter, distrusting, and unpleasant. No one would blame her if she felt depressed or discouraged. But instead, Anne reframes her own life and takes control of her own story. She uses her imagination to create her own best friends and to make her world more beautiful. She notices and appreciates the little things. She has a warm open heart and the ability to find kindred spirits everywhere she goes, even when the world doesn’t initially appear very friendly. She bravely learns from her mistakes and keeps moving forward. She rises above her initial circumstances and goes on to create a life for herself filled with love, friends, scholarship, and beauty.

Through Anne’s story, we get a glimpse of a better world. One of the recurring plots in the first three novels (those are the ones I’ve read over and over because I can’t quite handle the idea of Anne grown up after college) is how Anne affects the people around her. She meets people who at first glance are difficult and curmudgeonly, and she influences them for good. She has such an open, kind heart herself, and she spreads it to the people with whom she interacts. She charms people with her refreshing sincerity and genuine good will, and she brings out the best in them. In the world of Anne of Green Gables, kindness and good intentions prevail.

I don’t believe that this idealized world is the one we actually live in. But it is the world that I wish we lived in, and my vision of it inspires me to do my little part in bringing it closer to reality. I want to be like Anne, bringing hope and beauty wherever I go and lighting up the world with my presence. I want to emerge from adversity still in touch with the joys of life and determined to learn from my mistakes. I want to inspire others the way Anne (and through her L.M. Montgomery) inspires me.

What’s the first thing to come to mind when you think of inspiration? What are the books or movies, characters or real-life people who drive you forward? What inspirational influences do you think have been especially critical for you?

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