On Honoring FIVE PROMISES

General Colin Powell. I don’t think I’ve grieved a public figure as much as I have him. I was shocked and so saddened by the announcement of his passing yesterday.

Sure, he was a top military leader throughout the decades, but he really won my heart in the 1990s as the first founding chairman of America’s Promise Alliance (by the way, his wife, Alma Powell, fills that role today). At the time, I was involved with some public relations campaigns involving politics, as well as youth advocacy. Powell was making a significant mark in both areas and, in my mind, there’s something extra special about a tough-as-nails, intelligent man who has a soft spot for kids.

America’s Promise Alliance is still going strong and anchors its efforts in “five promises“—what we grown-ups can promise to give to kids today so they have a better chance of becoming successful adults in the future:

  • Caring adults
  • Safe places
  • A healthy start
  • Effective education
  • Opportunities to help others

I am especially intrigued by the organization’s “How Learning Happens” research series, which promotes learning as “a social, emotional, and cognitive process for each and every young person—a process that is affected by their identities, relationships, circumstances, and a host of other academic and non-academic factors.”

Even though I had some great “caring adults” and “safe places” in my life, I think my own education was sorely lacking. And if I could put my finger on why, it’s all about what “How Learning Happens” addresses. In short, opportunities for me to personalize the learning material were rare. I remember vividly the mere handful of times I delved into a subject using my own curiosity and creativity—in turn, I remember clearly what I did and what I learned. But multiple-choice tests and other methods for responding by rote were the default teaching technique of my school. In the end, very little of the advanced material, if any of it, “took.” I know for a fact this is one of the reasons I love teaching and tutoring middle-school students these days: I am learning—truly learning—right along with them.

So I’m determined to embrace the “Alliance” piece of America’s Promise Alliance by, well, becoming an ally. First things first, in memory of General Powell and his positive impact on me and the world, I’m going to make a donation. Then I’m going to join the Alliance and make true on keeping those five important promises in partnership with other parents, educators, world leaders, etc. As you and I continue to connect here, please help keep me accountable. Thanks for reading!

On Striking A CHORD

The Cool Tools podcast showcases all manner of inventions and resources that are tried, tested, and loved by a variety of people in a variety of roles. What does it take for tools to be cool? According to Cool Tools, they can be “old or new as long as they are wonderful.” During one of the podcast’s most recent programs, author and artist Austin Kleon sang the praises of his four favorite tools, including his family’s piano.

In an earlier blog post, Kleon describes a piano as “the most important piece of furniture in the house.” For Kleon, it’s something his son “could walk over to and play his feelings on.” Kleon’s homage to his piano reminded me of the affection I held for the most treasured possession of my childhood and tween years: a chord organ that I literally played into the ground. Yes, literally. My last memory of the organ involves duct tape holding up its collapsing legs.

A chord organ much like the one of my youth

Some might regard a chord organ as the lazy man’s accordion. No bellows to push in and pull out. Just twelve buttons on the lefthand side, each one marked to play a certain chord. Also, forget applying any kind of formal music theory when it comes to chord organs. Numbers appear over each key on the keyboard and match those appearing on the notes in special chord-organ music books.

The key word is “music”—chord organ enthusiasts still make music despite no technical training and some shortcuts. Indeed, I made music. I prided myself on my rousing rendition of “Camptown Races,” the smooth cascading melody of my version of “Theme from Ice Castles,” and all of the Christmas carols I pulled off when the season was right. An adult acquaintance who taught piano to other kids my age was convinced I was forming “bad habits” with my chord-organ playing. I took offense—for a moment. There was nothing that could hold me back from the joy of simply playing my heart out on that thing. Incorrect posture? Improper hand positions? Other supposed errors and inaccuracies? Whatever.

I write this as our daughter plunks away on the keyboard in the next room. An accomplished piano teacher sits by her side. But what we love most about this teacher is the way she just digs into fun and interesting songs, encourages experimentation, and extends a lot of grace. I never, not ever, have to ask our daughter to practice; in fact, “practice” isn’t even a word we use when it comes to her piano playing. In other words, it’s not something to be mastered—it’s something to appreciate as both a retreat and a platform, to “play” in the best and funnest sense of the word, to make her own. I pray it’s this kind of music-making that always strikes a chord with our daughter. I pray it becomes more true for other people, too.

Where There’s a Wall, There’s a Way (CATALOG 10/08/21)

Though StrengthsFinder 2.0 pegs one of my top strengths as Input, there is only one blog I read with any regularity: that of author and artist Austin Kleon. Its appeal? Once a week, Kleon sends his followers a top-ten list of creative and curious links from across the Web, including his own blog posts.

I don’t care to read much via any kind of electronic device (even though I produce my share of online content), so Kleon’s approach speaks to me. Full disclosure: I want to know a lot but, at the same time, to do as little as possible to get the gist. So my blog post this week pays homage to Austin Kleon and features my own “10 things I thought were worth sharing”:

1. The inspiration behind this week’s blog: Newsletters by Austin Kleon.

2. Where there’s a wall, there’s a way… Such was the motto of an artist who, during 130 days of the 2020 COVID lockdown, painted an awesome visual diary.

3. Crochet-alongs marry the challenge of an intricate pattern with the opportunity to bond as “happy hookers.” Beginning next week, designer Breann Mauldin prepares us for Christmas with a tree-skirt crochet-along.

4. A fascinating documentary on the Met Gala and the people who make it possible (and so pretty): “First Monday in May.”

5. …which led to my curiosity in Andre’ Leon Talley and his story: “The Gospel According to Andre’.”

6. What exactly is dyslexia? Groves Academy set me straight.

7. Again from Austin Kleon—and in light of this past week’s Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp outage—a reminder to “rewind your attention.”

8. Call it the HairClub for educators… With The Writing Revolution, I’m not only a better tutor—I’m a better writer.

9. Book: Freely and Lightly by Emily Lex, who pairs personal lessons on faith with everyday illustrations in watercolor.

10. Thanks to my artist pal T.B. Sojka, I learned about Sara Thurman’s Artists Rising Retreats—and dream about planning my own someday.

If you have a recommendation on something I should read, watch, wear, see, try, make, etc., please provide the link in the comments section below. Who knows, perhaps it will become part of my next “catalog.” Thanks for your input!

On Making A CAREER CHANGE

A pandemic. A war on racial inequality. Countless natural and man-made disasters.

Amidst all the struggles and strife of our current world, it’s a bit awkward to admit that I most recently experienced one of the very best years of my life.

It actually started in the fall of 2019 when I enlisted a life coach to help me address the gaping hole and nagging itch I was sensing in my long-time communications career. The main benefits of that coaching? A loyal and wise mentor, some invaluable self-awareness, and a passions statement that continues to drive any and all of the work I pursue:

With words as my primary medium, encouragement as my primary motive, and structure as my primary context, I am passionate about taking part in and creating learning experiences, celebrating uniqueness, and helping others recognize divine and personal meaning.

So where did all of this lead in more practical terms? After more than twenty-five years pushing key messages and getting swept up in the PR spin cycle, I abandoned business communications for the appeal of middle schoolers. Yep, middle schoolers—mouthy, pimple-faced, quirky, smart, beautiful, deep-thinking middle schoolers. Simply put, I love loving them.

On Monday, I will begin my second year as an AVID tutor through a local school district. AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination, is a class elective that prepares middle- and high-school students for college success. To that end, I facilitate presentations and group discussions on the students’ points of confusion and curiosity—questions and ideas they bring forward for deliberation. Talk about a rich learning experience for all involved, including me!

Then, on Tuesday, I start another job as a one-on-one writing and study-skills tutor for students with various learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, and ADHD. My prayer? To encourage young people who are often criticized for their uniqueness and discouraged from approaching their schoolwork in ways that really mean something to them. Indeed, this prayer is my passion!

I am ready. I am pumped. And I look forward to resurrecting this blog to share insights and resources from this new season of writing, learning, teaching, trying, caring, etc.—of following my truest passions. Thank you for reading!

On Reading FINDING DIVINE INSPIRATION

Just a couple weeks before 2019 came to a close, I finished reading Finding Divine Inspiration: Working with the Holy Spirit in Your Creativity by J. Scott McElroy. Much more than a book, it became the inspiration behind a deep spiritual assessment of why and how and with Whom I pursue all of my artistic and creative endeavors.

I know now that, if I truly want to make the most of my time and to produce anything of significance, I’m best to apply what I read in Finding Divine Inspiration. Here’s what that would mean—and here’s the challenge I set for myself in 2020 and beyond…

Why I create
I’ve mentioned it in previous posts: Making a living, making money, and making a name for myself are sure and certain temptations. But there’s so much more power in making for making’s sake—to revel in an idea, then the process. The end result should place a distant second to the truest heart of creativity: how and with Whom I create.

How I create
To be the person God created me to be, I need to discern and live into what He wants me to create for this world. In other words, creativity is a discipline. If indeed I believe I am a unique channel of the Holy Spirit and His purposes, then I should take that business to great heart. This is where my faith is tested, of course. A woman of true faith follows through with passion and energy, but I regret to admit that the Spirit’s leadings often fall on deaf ears and among a multitude of distractions. There is a different way—and I’m determined to find it. This year, I commit to take intentional steps in addressing the “how” of my creativity.

With Whom I create
It probably goes without saying, but part of my “how” is also to acknowledge the almighty “Who” right up front. In the companion journal of Finding Divine Inspiration, McElroy suggests a habit of dedication—to offer a routine prayer or to make some type of special mark on all pieces of art to acknowledge the creative process as a cooperative effort.

How easily I forget the constant presence and pursuit of God. How little I trust God—the Divine Inspiration who formed my passions and sparks my ideas—with an effort’s entire and ultimate purpose, be it personal time well spent with Him or a profound message to share with the world. As my church sings regularly in worship, “I will rest in the Father’s hands, leave the rest in the Father’s hands.”

Why? How? With Whom? These questions now shape the what of my creativity. Such enlightenment certainly doesn’t mean that my work is now ultra-theological or spiritual. In fact, I think my latest endeavors couldn’t be more rudimentary and secular. But, for me, they bear much more depth and meaning than many past projects simply because of the God-given purpose I now yearn to fulfill in my artistic time. Amen. May it be so.