Breathing Through Stagnation

New York 2011 041

I haven’t been blogging lately because I have felt stuck in a motivational malaise. I think part of it is due to financial stagnation. Since I am an adjunct instructor, I don’t teach for most of August and the payments for the fall contract don’t kick in until late September. This year, Irma also cost me hours at my part-time writing consultant job. Although I also run my own academic editing and coaching business, the beginning of the academic year is always slow.

I always plan for this economic downturn, but I hate to see monthly expenses eat away at my savings, even if it was saved for that purpose. The financial stagnation chips away at my motivation. When I have a goal, I like to see forward momentum, no matter how small. Right now, my goal is to save the down payment for my own condo.

I left a job in academic administration and moved out of my apartment during a bad bipolar episode seven years ago. I have rented a couple rooms since then, allowing myself the financial freedom to restructure my life in a way that would be more beneficial to my health and the well being of my daughter. Now we are ready for a two-bedroom condo of our own. We should be ready to buy this spring. It’s hard to be so close, and yet be in a position where you must simply wait. I have never been good at waiting. I like to doing.

For now, I take deep breaths and try to focus on other things. I finished my academic article, did my research for a conference presentation, and now I am reviewing and revising my business plan for the upcoming year.

Sometimes stillness can be as unsettling as chaos, but I know things will soon change. They always do.

Breathing Through Irma 3


I wake to the sound of thunder, and search for my phone. As I open the NOAA radar app, I see Irma has moved further west.

The house was still quiet when I woke this morning. I was relieved to see that the eye of Irma was no longer targeting Miami. Although I felt relief, it’s impossible to feel happy. The shift simply means that the threat is bearing down on someone else. As I write this post, Irma is hugging the coast of Cuba and predicted to swing up towards Tampa. At the moment, Irma has been downgraded to a Cat 3. I feel like I just dodged a bullet.

This week has been an emotional roller coaster ride. Last weekend, my daughter and I were dreaming about owning our own condo and how we would decorate it; days later we were worried about what would be left after “the monster storm.” I have distracted myself with Netflix, and occasionally wrapped myself in heavy blankets to counter the stress. I’ll be glad when this storm has passed and we can focus on clean up and recovery. I can’t wait until I can enjoy my simple dreams of home ownership again.

Breathing Through Irma 2


Today is another beautiful pre-Irma day. The only indication that a devastating storm is on the way is the thick blanket of humidity that tries to suffocate you the minute you walk out the door. I went out to take pictures of my car and decided to take a walk around the block. I might as well get some fresh air and exercise while I can. I also needed to step away from the social media that was starting to enrage me.

As I was watching live meteorological reports on Facebook, I happened to notice the live stream of comments. People were fighting over whether or not prayer was helpful, if Irma was the wrath of God, and individuals well beyond the reach of Irma where condemning the “denial” of those still in Florida. To be honest, I wanted to poke a few people right in the eye.

I admit, my first response was to write a scathing response to these comments. I have faced a lot of stress over the past three days as I have prepared for the Cat 5 force winds of a storm three times the size of Andrew, but nothing has come close to the stress inflicted by my fellow humans. In the era of narcissism, has empathy become such a rare commodity? Or do we only feel it for those we know?

I let my self-righteous rage flow from my finger tips as I hammered away at the keyboard. My rage sprawled across the page as I responded to a few ignorant comments. Then I walked away and let the toxic words sit there on my screen for a while. Gradually, the anger subsided.

I read the words again. They felt as true after my temper had cooled as they did in the heat of my anger, but now my rational brain was kicking in. Would posting my scathing response help the situation in anyway? Not really. Would my intended audience suddenly see the error of their ways? I doubt it.

I am fortunate, that many people who I know have expressed their concern and sympathy and extended offers of assistance pre- and post-Irma. Those are the people I will focus on. So, I revised this post.

President Truman once popularized the phrase “The Buck Stops Here” to indicate the acceptance of responsibility. It is the acceptance of responsibility for problems that may never have been ours to begin with. When it comes to social media, sometimes you have to decide “The Toxicity Stops Here.” I cannot advise others to model the values they espouse, without doing it myself.

My anxiety levels are still a little high because of the storm, but at least I am not letting other people control my emotions.

Breathing Through Irma


OK, so here is the real test of my new found composure. Hurricane Irma. I, and millions of other Floridians, are directly in its path. As a resident of Miami, I briefly considered driving out of the state on Wednesday, but many service stations were already running out of gas, and those that remained had lines for blocks. Getting stuck without gas somewhere around Orlando was a real possibility. Instead, we have made all possible preparations, and we are simply waiting it out.

By we, I mean myself and my roommates. Because my roommate owns a home that survived Andrew, some of her adult children will be staying here as well. The house is boarded up. We have food, water, and gas in our vehicles for when the storm is over. We’ve taken pictures of the property, inside and out, incase any insurance claims need to be made. I have even disseminated my “please contact” numbers, should the need to contact them on my behalf occur. Thanks to my usual low doses of medication, I am able to due all of this without being overwhelmed by anxiety or becoming paralyzed by panic attacks.

I am also attempting to take the advice I gave my own students: “Focus on what you can control instead of worry about what you can’t control.” Today, I have done some basic cleaning. Tomorrow, I will go through my neglected file cabinet and purge outdated information. Finally, if I can force myself to concentrate, I have a presentation synopsis to write and an academic article to revise. It might sound like an ambitious list of tasks during a state of emergency, but it’s only Thursday and Irma is not projected to make landfall until Sunday. That’s a lot of time to overthink if I don’t stay preoccupied.

Of course, there are also movies (while I have electricity), and books (which can be read by my Coleman battery powered lantern, if necessary). Then there’s blogging. As long as I have power, I will try to post. Right now, I don’t have much to report except for the calm before the storm. This morning a beautiful full moon hung in the early, pastel colored sky. As the morning grew into day, the harsh sun beat down on exhausted locals. I hope everyone is able to get a good night’s sleep before tropical winds start to kick in. We all deserve it.

Design and Redesign


I finish typing up a basic guide for MLA formatting and look at the clock on my phone. It’s 8:30. I’ve already put in a couple hours of work, so I close the document and give my short American coffee a tentative swirl. Almost empty. It looks like this morning will be a two-cup day, so I grab the nearly empty cup and ask the barista for a refill.

I’m already preparing for fall semester, even though I have the next three weeks off. I wasn’t happy with last semester’s English Literature Course. I had integrated the new Peer Lead Team Learning format into my course and things did not go as smoothly as I had hoped. I know the flaw was in my course design, not in the PLTL model itself. I have used PLTL in my English Composition course and found it was quite helpful.

At the end of last semester, I expressed my disappointment in the course structure and asked students for their honest feedback. Each student gave me five ways I could improve the course and their reasons why. Many of the students turned in thoughtful detailed feedback that I found extremely helpful in my course redesign.

Research into the reader-response approach to literature has also been helpful. Understanding how other instructors implemented the reader-response approach into their classrooms has given me a few ideas of my own. My goal is to help my students become experts rather than rely on experts. Although it is valuable to consult the expert opinions of others, it is even more important to be able to evaluate and integrate those opinions in a constructive way. This is a skill that will serve them beyond literature into their personal and professional lives. It is a technique I use every time I update my course, or make a major life decision.

I stop typing and pick up my coffee. As the liquid swirls in the cup, I realize that my coffee is half empty already. I look at the clock and almost 30 minutes have passed. Ten words a minute is certainly not a land speed record. Contemplative reflection is deliberate like that. It has a way of slowing down forward motion, but it can make the forward motion more meaningful, more focused, and more productive.

I take a deep breath and consider my next steps, weighing experience, feedback, and expert advice. I take out my planner, to review my goals for this week, and my journal, to record the random thoughts bouncing around in my head. This is my design and redesign process. I use it in my teaching, in my writing, in my art, and in my life, a slow spiral that both revisits the past and projects into the future, moving up from a wide base to a specific point.

This is what I want to teach my students, more than just writing or literature. I want them to learn persistence, resilience, and focus. I want them to be able to weigh experience, feedback, and expert advice. I want them to be able to spiral up from a wide base to a specific point. Most of all, I want them to be able to teach others to do the same.

Sort of Summer Break


I hit the submit button and the electronic gradebook registers the final grades. There is a great sense of relief. I still have to print and sign hard copies of my reports, but I have met my deadline and my students can move on with their academic careers. Tomorrow, I will wake up early and go to the beach.

I still have a lot to do over the next three weeks. I need to revise my academic article, do research for my tutor conference presentation, prepare for fall classes, and participate in an online course through the Editorial Freelancers Association. It won’t be all work though, my daughter and I have scheduled four days in Orlando, and we can’t wait to go on an adventure.

I also look forward to catching up on some reading within the blogosphere. I haven’t really been able to write much this week, much less read what everyone else has been up to. That makes me sad. I love being immersed in the world of writing, especially inspirational or personal journal writing. Over the next three weeks, I will wake up, read, and write while enjoying my morning coffee. Perhaps, I will even unwind in the evening with a glass of wine and more reading and writing. Time will go by too fast, I know, but I hope to spend some quality time with some nonacademic words for a change. Basically, the next three weeks will be my opportunity to recharge and regroup before heading into the busy fall semester.

I pull out my Rituals for Living Dreambook and add a couple goals to my long-term plans: book agent and $40,000 a year with Crafting the Message. This evening, I will start breaking those goals down into small, reasonable action steps. I light some incense and let the smoke waft up past my vision board.  Each time I walk in the room, the smell will remind me to stay focused and to stay relaxed. That’s the key.

When I studied Tai Chi in college, I fell in love with the concentric circles and the energy flow. The idea behind Tai Chi is to use your opponent’s energy to neutralize the attack. It’s the physical embodiment of the ying/yang concept. Each gentle movement guides energy into a new direction. Pursuing your dreams is a lot like that. Life is a constant onslaught of incoming challenges. The most efficient way to achieve your dreams is to use that energy; neutralize the obstacles by redirecting the force to your advantage.

I never stop. Even when I am relaxing or going on a “sort of” summer break. That doesn’t mean I am pushing myself, or exhausting myself. I am just redirecting energy.

A Very Rough Draft


I reach the word count limit of 3750 words, but I haven’t finished the article. I highlight everything in the last subsection because I know I need to revise it. I estimate that have at least another 600 words to go, so I will have go through the manuscript and make it more concise. That’s actually one of my favorite editing jobs, trying to convey the same message with fewer words.

I have to admit this article is currently a rough draft . . . a very rough draft. It’s so rough it deserves the empty descriptor “very,” the kind of word I would immediately cut out of a draft. It reminds me of my life in general. Right now, it’s a rough draft . . . a very rough draft, and I still need to do a lot of editing to make it more concise.

Fortunately, this is the last week of classes for the summer and then I have a short break before fall. It won’t be three weeks of vacation, though. I scheduled a four-day trip to Orlando with “the little,” but the rest of the time I will spend planning for the academic year ahead. The difference between dreams and goals are action steps, and I will need to schedule a whole lot of action steps to get where I want to go.

I hit the save button and close my article for the evening. Although being productive is important, so is resting and regenerating. Tomorrow, I will wake up early and start again.