Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

more on mastery, failure, and play

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via facebook

Lately my grandmothers — well, all my old ladies — have been whispering platitudes to me as I sleep. Yesterday’s was practice makes perfect. Today’s is if at first you don’t succeed… You know the rest!

And yet… There’s a great deal of truth in those old sayings. Certainly this one. I confess: I HATE HATE HATE (really dislike) my learning curve showing. I have a dear friend (and former boss) who used to tease me about it: Britton doesn’t like her learning curve showing! And nope, Britt really doesn’t.

When I was a young girl, I didn’t even like to play at games or sports I didn’t already know well. Because I had (still have) rotten eye-ball-hand coordination, I was always the verrry last one picked for softball in gym. Remember those deadly days of captains choosing team members? Yep — I was always the last one in softball. I even learned to bat left-handed so I’d be walked. I stopped even trying to hit the ball — just waited to be walked, since almost no one could pitch for a lefty girl.

Somehow this didn’t translate to things I already loved, like piano, riding horses, or bicycling. I just did those things, w/ no thoughts of good/bad/indifferent. They seemed to fall in a different place — beyond my prowess or lack thereof. I wasn’t a great pianist, by any stretch, but I did okay. And I loved it, hating to practice, but always fiddling around on the piano. Playing, in other words.

Same w/ horses, except that I actually competed in dressage as a child. And although I only brought home a third-place ribbon, that was fine. Good enough — I PLACED! Ballet, where I must have been really awful, was no more frightening. It was sports and games that often frightened me to silence. They seemed to be so…well, so serious. There wasn’t room to play.

So when I see the meme on masters who fail, and beginners who need far far more practice? I’m 14 again, noodling around on the piano. Or even in my 30s, horse-sitting someone’s horse so I can ride her when I have time. Or this week, as I take on a visual journal challenge (I draw verrry badly!). If I look at these as play? I’m FINE. They don’t intimidate me in the least. I’ve even been known to share my exceptionally poor sketches w/ students, to show them how much more important it is to try than to succeed.

Because there is no success w/out significant failure, I’m certain. I wrote so verrry many bad poem before I published a good one. And I’ve drawn more badly deformed birds than I’d like to admit, getting my practice in.

Trust me: if this year holds a new hobby, sport, or even work skill for you, you need to give in to failure. The picture is absolutely correct: mastery is built from many many failures, which will outnumber the successes for what seems like ages. Until one day, there you are: succeeding. And it’s downhill from there. Honest.

mastery, creativity, and letting go

the author's

the author’s

Recently I read a piece on integration of skills. (And yep, I read that kind of stuff…) It was taking the Malcolm Gladwell approach — that you need a heckuvva long time doing something before you master it. Gladwell’s assertion is that it’s a minimum of 10,000 hours. Again, a lotta practice…

One of my favourite musicians — Macklemore — did a song from this premise, ‘Ten Thousand Hours.’ It’s easier than reading the book, certainly, and has its own raw appeal. Because we all know this. Our grandmothers & mothers & fathers & teachers drummed it in to us: practice makes perfect. And apparently it really does.

But the kicker is what I read (and no, I can’t remember what or where!) — that to be a true master of a skill, you have to be able to let go. You have to be able to fall back on your internalized knowledge like a safety net, perhaps even falling. Because every project/ challenge/ problem isn’t the same, obviously. Each day of our lives calls for something new, cobbled together from the thousands of hours we’ve already lived.

Each of my poems, I discovered in grad school, held some germinal feeling or word that echoed another poem. Maybe even several poems. There were so many threads of connection that I picked the six most common words and made a sestina out of them: hunger, bones, word, breath, knowledge, blood. It isn’t the happiest of sestinas, but it accurately reflects a certain period of my life.

the author's

the author’s

So here’s my thoughts on practice, creativity, and beginner’s heart: I have a LOT of work to do! Practicing until I know beginner’s heart like I do poetry — not inside & out, certainly (I’m not THAT arrogant!), but well. Well enough to engage on most levels of discussion w/ knowledge & informed understanding. Poetry is something I’ve read/ studied/ taught & loved since I was much much younger — I’m, well, attached to it. And yet? I can let go of all that when I need to — a kind of code-switching from mastery to play.

Sigh. That’s a loooong way off from where I am w/ learning my beginner’s heart, I suspect… And then? When I get to that point? I have to be willing to let go of all I’ve learned and ‘create.’ Which is another word for letting go of that attachment, that mastery. Floating like some kind of feather pen in the wind, writing on leaves.

A lovely image, but not one to inspire confidence. Right now, I’m figuring I just need to get up outa the chair and go meditate. Kind of like doing journal exercises for writing. Nothing, in other words, to attach to. Just one more ding in the 10,000 hour surface.

Oklahoma: a Middle Path relationship

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via google

I’m a native Okie. Most of the time, I’m very proud of my 2nd generation roots — not common for many Okies, many of whom have moved here during various oil booms, or for school, or whatever.

My grandparents weren’t in the Rush, and I’m proud of that, too, as it was a rip. Where do you think the term ‘Sooners’ came from? Folks who jumped the gun. Literally rode out early to stake land claims. And don’t forget: this was all Indian Territory, promised by treaty to various tribes.

So Oklahoma begins in a conflicted manner: a Land Rush to land that was legally promised to others. Cheaters sneaking in to stake land early. The Tulsa Race Riots a few years later, and other blots.

For a while, we seemed to lay those dark moments behind us. During my childhood & adolescence, Oklahoma was a progressive state. A state of writers & artists — Ralph Ellison & Woody Guthrie, N. Scott Momaday & Maria Tallchief. Carl Albert, Speaker of the House, was a voice for working families. He was instrumental in the passage of Medicare, for instance: a boon to the many working poor in Oklahoma and the rest of the country.

So the Oklahoma I grew up in is night & day different from the state that just proposed we ban hoodies. Yup, you read correctly: ban hoodies. In public places, if you have ‘ill intent.’ Now, let me get this straight: you can wear a hoodie if you don’t have ill intent? And…who gets to decide this?? Exactly how do you determine — BEFORE a crime is committed — what someone’s ‘intent’ is?

via wikimedia

via wikimedia

Oklahoma has a history of dumb laws, laws that end up coming back to bite us you-know-where. Like, making a law that a statue of the 10 Commandments could be placed on the State Capitol grounds. Sure. But that opened the way to the Satanic Church citing their Constitutional right to a similar statue, of Satan & the little children (I’m not kidding). Not to mention the Black Mass thing…

We are a wayward state, given to strange fancies and odd lawmakers. It’s in our history, from Alfalfa Bill Murray (our 9th state governor), who allegedly slapped fig leaves on all the ancient Greco-Roman statues bought for the Capitol. After all, they were nekkid.

So here I am, living in a state where my family has deep roots. My aunt held office here, my father ran for office here. My grandmother was one of the state’s first female postmasters. We have farmed here, owned businesses here, and lived & loved & died here. Yet sometimes? All I want to do is leave…

via wikimedia

via wikimedia

Oklahoma, you violently red state, I have no clue how to continue our relationship. You try my beginner’s heart no end. How do I reconcile the great beauty of Rainy Mountain rising from the red rock near Quartz Mountain w/ the blood-red anger you show so many of America’s minorities? You’re homophobic, racist, greedy, corrupt. You’re beautiful beyond breath, kinder than the destructive force of a F5 tornado, more generous than any religion could ask. When I walk beneath the honey locusts in the spring, I swear there’s no place more lovely. And when I read of another of your dumb laws? I swear there’s no place more benighted.

Middle Path? I guess. But it sure is embarrassing sometimes.

schedule (and value?) conflicts

via flickr

via flickr

So here it is the 1st week of January, and already I have…schedule conflicts??? I’m retired, for pete’s sake! How can I have THREE happening on the same weekend next JUNE??

But I DO. And each of them dear to me, although obviously not of similar importance.

First (and certainly most important!) is staying w/ my son & DIL for the birth of my granddaughter. Who wouldn’t be ecstatic to even be asked, much less get to do it? Time w/ the two of them, my smart & funny & adorable grandson, and the new baby? Bliss.

But then there’s the writer’s retreat I’ve been guest writer/editor at for 10 years. This will be my 11th, and it’s smack at the end of the baby month my son & DIL requested. I’ve grown extremely fond of the writers who attend year after year. Over the past decade, I’ve watched their writing reflect the personal growth — through loss, through education, through time and attention — each has made. I’ve shared their griefs and their triumphs: the tragic loss of a spouse, a parent. Publication, tenure, a new super-job. How to not be there?

Third is much easier, but still a bit of a struggle to let go of: a poetry marathon. This was the first year I participated, and I ‘only’ did the half-marathon: a poem an hour for 12 hours. It was amazing! I had hoped to try more this year, but I’m thinking that’s not going to work as I juggle my grandparent duties!

This is the year, too, that I am trying to reflect in my actions my values — spending my time (it grows shorter…it grows shorter…) on those things most dear to me. And certainly my family heads that list.

So there is no real ‘conflict.’ Only a bittersweet recognition that things don’t always go the way we might like — that old Buddhist attachment thing again! I’m turning to my friend reframing: how lucky am I to have the opportunity to do THREE things that reflect my deepest values?

Even if they DO all come at the same time!

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