Some concerns about being an home-based entrepreneur can be energizing instead of debilitating. I share that idea plus my old-school planning techniques as a work-at-home writer in this week’s post for Onward Creatives.
I wrote a guest post this week for Onward Creatives. You can read it here:
I bought this scurrying creature for her at The Dollar Tree on her first birthday, and she has loved it now for more than two years.
I’ll find it in my closet, on my desk chair, on a table, in the middle of the floor, and, quite often in the mornings, I’ll realize she brought it to the top of my bed in the middle of the night.
For a time, this toy had a little mechanical device within it. When you pulled the tail, it supposedly scurried like a mouse. That device is long gone – loved away through lots of jumps and carries from here to there.
To Trixie, I think this toy has become real.
I didn’t know about The Velveteen Rabbit, a classic children’s story by Margery Williams, until I reached college. Somehow I missed the tale of the boy whose love made a stuffed rabbit real. But I heard friends talk about it.
People long remember stories they hear in childhood.
I think often about Stone Soup, where this man was in a village long ago making soup out of a stone that he’d put in a pot of water. I’m not sure if this was supposed to be a picture of a scam or a display of genuine leadership, but people kept saying things like, “Oh, I’ve got some carrots. Let me add that.” Or “Here’s a little meat. Would that help?” And the whole community comes together to make soup that everyone enjoys.
It’s a nice tale. So much can happen when we work together to serve others. Hope you’ll remember some nice stories today about love, or community, or some other good quality.
I’d read that cats make eye contact when entering a room because they want to know if you’re going to protect them as they get a little shut-eye. They’ve got to grab forty winks, or maybe eighty. Will you take care of the place, they want to know. Will you make sure they’re safe.
I always tell Trixie yes, go ahead. I’ve got it.
She came into my office just then, with sudden jump on table, but crouched position, ears back. Concerned. Could mean that something, perhaps a windblown leaf or a squirrel outdoors, had caused her concern.
“You okay?” I asked. She didn’t speak, which is her usual style when she’s unsure. She won’t meow if the thinks she’s going to tip off an intruder to her position. Smart girl.
I checked the windows. Probably a leaf. But could have been a squirrel.
She’s resting now. Getting that shut-eye she needed.
Hope you feel safe today, as if someone’s watching the place while you rest.
I was talking to a colleague earlier who was asking very generally about my help with articles for his website. Trying to figure out the most efficient process, I asked, “Do you want to write over what I begin? Or do you want me to write over what you begin?”
This is about creating a stem of a story. For some people, resistance comes when you face a blank screen. But if the words have already begun to be formed, you’ll get prodded into a reaction: “Wait, that’s not who I am. That’s not what I want to say. I want to go in a new direction.” So you start making edits that bring your own thoughts to fruition.
The other way is when you know what you want to say. You just don’t have time to finesse your point. So you jot down your stem – the heart of the matter – and a copywriter finishes your thought and smooths out your creative process.
Shifting the business point to the personal, some of us need help telling our story. We get overwhelmed by the minutia of daily demands that we don’t take time to dig into the details and draw out the meaning. Yet the beauty, joy, worthiness and belonging that have been with us from the beginning are there to be found. Watch and see.
On my morning walk, sometimes I’ll see coins. Pennies are common, a nickel is nice. Quarters are exciting – because they’re large and shiny and I can probably use them in a parking meter someday. If I see a coin, I’ll scoop it up and keep it without giving it another thought. But one day I saw something so unexpected that I was concerned. I was walking along a curb and came across a roll of bills that quickly counted out to sixty dollars.
An extra sixty dollars would be nice to have, I grant you. Who wouldn’t want another sixty dollars, but it was too large an amount to scoop up and keep walking. So I stopped to think. My best guess was that the dollars were associated with a particular house. I went to ring the doorbell. No answer.
I didn’t know who belonged to this money, but I did not lose this money for that person. I didn’t see it as my full responsibility to find the rightful owner, but I did see my responsibility thusly: I couldn’t walk away with someone else’s sixty dollars. After much deliberation, I opened the mailbox at the curb at the house where I thought the money was most likely associated, and I pushed the dollars inside. Then I walked away, having done the two things I knew to do to give the money a chance to be returned to its owner.
That was several weeks ago, and I do not know what happened after that. But what I gained from the experience was this picture of walking away having done the best I knew to do – while also accepting a general belief that in a divine economy of some kind, what is lost is found again.
Change of Perspective
I’ve been thinking about how a few changes to a story give it new meaning. Memories, impressions, fleeting notions – the stories you store and recall – give meaning to your experiences. So, therefore, you can alter the meaning of your experiences by taking another look at the stories you tell about what is taking place.
A change of perspective, in other words.
In May 1942, my father typed a charming letter home from World War II that involved losing coins on a bus trip across town and finding them again on his return. He begins, “The most entertaining, true story that has ever happened to me, this day at 12, during a typical Hawaiian day, extremely and almost unbearably hot, I boarded the Waikiki Bus, for the Waikiki District, on regular assigned work.”
At the time he wrote this letter, he was in a part of the country that had been bombed only a few months earlier. America was losing the war so far, and he was away from home. So, knowing of him from later in life when he experienced a lot of issues, I wondered if I could rewrite that story into something that would change its meaning for me. That’s how I came to:
The Father’s Fare
By Minnie Lamberth
Sometimes this world takes you places you don’t want to go.
When the plane landed, the ensign was in a crowd that lifted to its feet with a mix of unspoken uncertainty and “let’s do this” bravado. Jostled by the people around him, he stepped out into a tropical paradise, felt a wave of heat from the tarmac.
Breathtaking … and yet. You would hardly say “what a beautiful place” without being aware of the devastation that had spewed from earlier planes. Even if you did take notice of the blue-green water, you would still look up from time to time. You’d see the billowing clouds, squint at the piercing sun, and wonder what terrible thing might be just beyond the horizon.
He was so homesick he could barely breathe. And he was afraid.
Some days after he had settled in, he was sent on an errand across town. “With my luck this is the day the bombs come back,” he thought. He didn’t want to go.
As the bus pulled up to the stop, he stepped on, paid his fare, and the conductor handed him his change. He clasped the coins while squeezing into a tight space filled with silent men and women – civilian and military, locals and outsiders. Words were stifled by the unbearable heat and by thoughts of that unknown horizon.
He grabbed a strap with one hand as he tried to place the change in his pocket with the other. But easy things were hard to do, and when he released his grip, the coins missed their aim and fell to the floor. Two dimes, a nickel and a penny bounced and rolled away.
Every silent eye saw that the coins were out of his reach, and no one could help. He imagined everyone felt the same weight of helplessness and difficulty, as if the unknowns beyond the horizon were so present they couldn’t even tend to those coins on the floor.
Sometimes this world takes you places you don’t want to go. And you will find things there that you cannot repair, retrieve or undo.
The fares we pay for our journeys can be quite high. But here’s another thing to consider. If you tell the story that life is unfair and this world is unsafe, you will tell a true story that you will surely believe.
Or you can tell a different story that is also true.
This world is one of loss and restoration. That’s the system. When you give, you receive. When you hold things loosely, you feel more together. If you step away from a puzzle that cannot be solved, you will feel a sense of reconciliation from the simple act of letting go. When you walk away, there is a return. In loss, there is gain.
That’s what happened that day on the errand across town. After the ensign’s assignment was complete, he headed toward the bus stop for the trip back to the base. When the conductor opened the door, he paid his fare and turned to grab a strap. Then he looked down, and there on the floor he saw two dimes, a nickel and a penny.
He almost cried. Not over the money, for there would always be coins that fell to the ground, but from the idea that heaven had reached through that troubled horizon to offer the reassurance he most needed to hear: What once was lost will be found again.
Fifty years away, the ensign’s long journey has neared an end. By now his coins are few and far between, and he stares helplessly at the distance ahead. On his own he can go no farther, and, conceding defeat, he sees the battle is lost. There’s no way he can find his way home from here. And yet… from somewhere beyond that unknown horizon, a Father’s voice draws near: “Do not be afraid, my son. Your passage has been paid.”
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Matthew 10:29-30 (NIV)
A couple of years ago, I started experimenting with art projects that incorporated pieces of debris that I picked up on my morning walks, and I added within these pieces inspirational phrases that generally came from scripture.
During that season, I was eating lunch at La Zona Rosa, and I saw a friend, Eileen, at another table. She crossed the restaurant to tell me, “I have a verse for you… ‘He will rejoice over you with singing.’” This verse from Zephaniah 3 had come to her mind that day, and she thought I might find use for it in my art projects.
I did not find a place, per se, in any of my projects, but I thought often of the verse itself – and what that might be like to have God rejoice over me with singing. This concept seemed pleasant but not necessarily available in my day to day. I thought of this verse again when I attended a Service of Remembrance last November.
On that Sunday afternoon, I was sitting at the end of a pew on the wall-side of the sanctuary at First United Methodist Church, listening to hymns, prayers and readings. I’d been to this service before, but this time I was overjoyed by my experience. The best part was the choral benediction. The choir recessed down those wall-side walkways, then lined up along the wall to stop and sing their final hymn. Choir members, including one of the earlier soloists, were right beside me as they sang this lovely benediction. It was almost like being surrounded by a great chorus of witnesses. I thought, this must be what it’s like to have the Lord rejoice over me with singing.
That concept was not far from mind this month as I toyed with the phrase, “The Father’s Lullaby.” I have been working on a series of parables, and I wondered, what can I do with the word lullaby… I thought about The Daughter’s Lullaby, The Creator’s Lullaby, The Warrior’s Lullaby… Then: No, wait, what about The Father’s Lullaby? Where can I go with that? Here’s how I found my answer.
Mother and Sisters, I want you all to pray for me that I may live to fight through the battles and come out untouched and return to my family. And Mother, if I should fall in the course, I want you to remember my daughter for she feels dear to me as a lovely daughter. My wife is teaching school at Wessobulga and my daughter is going to school. You all must write to her at Wessobulga.
Manuel Lamberth had had terrible experiences in battle – grave illnesses and injury, near starvation, truly troubled times. So I wondered, what if this lullaby were somehow related to him and his daughter – to their an earthly separation that stretched for many miles that, now, a century and a half later still has a message to remember.
That’s how this parable came to be.
The Father’s Lullaby
By Minnie Lamberth
He lay on a cot in camp, feverish and ill, wondering what his missteps would mean to his little girl. He couldn’t have loved her more if he had pulled out his heart and handed it to her with his last breath. But he was here, and she was there.
That night in camp, sick unto death, he thought of this dear daughter, and in his grief, a mournful dispatch eased slowly from his broken spirit:
In my mind, I see you there
A mirage of memory
That never goes away
I did not leave
You are not gone
We are together, still.
Far away from this battlefield, his daughter awakened from unsettled sleep. A celestial light peeked through an open window, and she felt welcomed by the sight. The moon had always been her friend – steady, quiet and present on any dark night.
The loft was warm this evening. Throwing off her cover, she rose, looked out and looked up as the stars blinked their greeting. The land was still, the night air did not move. In this moment all her own, she opened her heart to distant thoughts as a melody that only she could hear floated down from the heavens:
Sleep, my child, in comforted pose
Dream, my child, released from your woes
For love is greater than fear
Whenever your heart draws near
To hear your father’s lullaby
She had heard these words before, having been stored in long ago memory. But sometimes in quiet moments they found their way into her waking hours. The melody continued:
Stand firm in the face of any dismay
Journey on in the light of the one true way
The battle is not your own
You know you’re never alone
When you hear your father’s lullaby.
She took these words in as a treasure beyond what her eyes, ears or mind could comprehend, and as the melody moved around and settled within her spirit, she said with a sigh to the endless sky, “Thank you for this song.”
Two hundred miles away, the cot that held her father sagged from the weight of his helpless estate. He could not move. Even so, his feverish mind stirred up the strength of a love that would not end, and he found the breath to voice his deepest plea:
I was born into the life I knew
during these terrible days
Everywhere I look, I see
others just like me
Each person here
misses someone there
as we lift the ones we love
into the heart of God above
In need of sleep, I cannot rest
until I make this fervent request
If I do not return from here
do not believe I left you there
My love was real
We are together, still
In the distance between them, his daughter bid farewell to the moon and stars, as she voiced her prayer into the sky: “Take care of those we love, this night and always.”
And she returned to her bed, where she gathered herself in peaceful slumber.
Change of Perspective
The idea that underlies this parable is: what if I look beyond a sense of abandonment and despair and see instead connection, love and care? How would that shift in perspective change how a story is stored and recalled?
I’ll be telling more about this idea in the coming days.
The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing. Zephaniah 3:17
My experience within the proximity of Alabama politics began when I was in third grade. My mother and I were visiting relatives in Montgomery. We went for lunch at the Morrison’s Cafeteria on Lee Street, and there we saw a man who was at that moment former Governor George Wallace. This was after his first term, after his late wife’s abbreviated term, and before his second. My mother’s aunt introduced us, and as Governor Wallace greeted us, he pulled out a picture postcard of himself and gave it to me.
How did he know that I would take this postcard to school the next Monday? He must have had a sense even then about word-of-mouth marketing strategies, for I surely did. I took the postcard to school and showed it to my teacher before the bell rang. Her little boy, a first grader, was in the room at the time. She said, “Show it to him. He’ll know who it is.”
Frankly, I thought that was a crazy suggestion. How could a first grader know the identity of the man on the picture postcard if I had only learned it myself two days ago? The little boy studied the card and finally, with hesitation, asked, “Is it Nixon?”
See? I told you he wouldn’t know. But it was sort of impressive that a first grader could pull the president’s name out of the hat like that. I don’t think I’ve seen that little boy since third grade, but I understand that when he grew up he entered the political communications field. So, in hindsight, this exchange makes sense.
The next time I met a man about to become governor, I was a young copywriter working for a Montgomery ad agency. We were responsible for a big event in Atlanta, during which Governor-elect Guy Hunt, George “Goober” Lindsey and the tourism director were to speak about Alabama’s attributes as a tourist destination.
As I sat at a table in a convention hall, anonymous among 3,000 people, I took note that I had written all of the remarks that the people read from the podium that day (except the invocation). I was marveling that everyone was listening to words I had written. But what I remember especially is thinking that it should be more of a pinnacle than it was. It was one of those moments where an amazing experience was matched by a general awareness that whatever was happening was not enough to bring meaning to my life.
During my work at the ad agency, changes in the office of Governor had affected who was selected for state contracts, which affected workload. I had hoped to avoid the political ramifications of having (and losing) state contracts following elections. So I took an opportunity to move into a job in state government. In which I stepped even deeper into political ramifications. “It’s one of the most political agencies there is,” I was told of my new agency. “Every year there’s a bill to abolish it.”
Still, the role itself was easy to manage, and I had a supervisor who treated me well.
We had lots of governors during my time there. Guy Hunt was removed from office, so we shifted direction during the brief Jim Folsom Jr. term, then we shifted again when Fob James came back as he defeated Folsom.
Eventually I segued and began to work for Huntingdon College part-time while I prepared to write full-time. During my tenure there, a gubernatorial campaign was afoot, and one of my very favorite colleagues on campus was expressing dismay about the accusations that challenger Don Siegelman was making about Governor James. She was quite put out. Very put out. And I remember distinctly that she said: “Uncle Fob just wouldn’t do that.”
I had heard that she was the governor’s niece, but when you hear someone say “Uncle Fob” it really comes home. And this was, once again, a reminder of being careful about expressing political opinions – and social media hadn’t even been invented yet.
The Governor Next Door
After Huntingdon, as I began to work on my own, I rented an office space within a friend’s place of business on North Hull Street. He and his wife, early in their marriage, had lived in a really cute house on Perry Street next door to the Governor’s Mansion. They said there was great security, given that a state trooper was always sitting outside their house.
One day in a workplace conversation, I had suggested to my friend Adams, a writer, that if he had been keeping a journal when he lived there, he could have written a book called “The Governor Next Door.” That would have been cool. He did offer up one story of how the tall and lanky Guy Hunt used to ride his bicycle on the grounds. Sometimes they would look out their window and all they would see was the governor’s head floating above the fence. Fascinating tidbit. It would have been a great book.
So let me get to this part of the story.
When I began working in state government, I was renting an attic apartment in a single-family dwelling, and Kay Ivey was the family’s next-door neighbor. She and I became driveway acquaintances. Then she hired me on the staff at the Alabama Commission on Higher Education.
A couple of weeks ago, on Palm Sunday, I was sitting in church just a few minutes before the 8:30 service when I saw Kay sitting alone in a pew. I thought to myself, “I better get up and go speak to her.” She had a lot going on.
So I walked over and gave a big, “Hey, Kay,” and she responded with a friendly, “Well, Minnie Lamberth.” She has always greeted me that way.
I reached down and hugged her and said, “I will be praying for you.”
She said, “Thank you, and pray for the state too.”
We didn’t have a long conversation, but there was just something about taking a moment to acknowledge that something big was about to happen. At the same time, we come at these things from different perspectives. Kay has pursued political activity over her whole career, just as I have wished to avoid it to the extent possible in Montgomery. Yet the fact that this was church, where hearts are a little more open and often more vulnerable, made those few moments, for me, the sweetest exchange we’d ever had.
I was glad I walked over to her pew that Sunday morning. By the end of the next day, she was our governor.
Four takeaways from this story:
Don’t commit crimes or abuses of power. Especially if you’re a governor. But, really, it’s not a good idea for anyone.
On the way up or down, be nice to everyone. Before I met the late George Lindsey I was told, “He’s not very nice.” This was surprising information as Goober had always seemed affable on camera. In any case, I had given him his script; he read it through. I asked if he wanted to read it again. He held up a finger and shook it at me as he said, “At these rates, you don’t rehearse.”
I remember thinking, “That wasn’t very nice.” His remark didn’t cause me any harm. It was one tiny exchange, but I have never forgotten that during that one encounter, he matched his reputation.
Cross the room to speak to people when you get that nudge to do so. I remember well in my mother’s last days that she and I had delivered a baby gift to one of her friends to give to that friend’s son – a well-positioned and successful man. And when that son saw my mother in a restaurant, he left his table and crossed the room to thank her effusively for the gift. In that experience, there were simple and lasting lessons about honoring someone above yourself, as Romans and often our mothers remind us to do.
Pursue your purpose over your tasks. Every job has lots of things to be done. But within each opportunity, there is an underlying purpose to be achieved. Stay focused on the purpose, because the tasks and sometimes the jobs will change and evolve. I was always a writer; I’m still a writer. But a lot has changed, even if I’m still doing what I always did.
Over the last several months, I’ve been working on a project that has taken a good bit of attention and scheduling. Last August, or thereabouts, I had an email from someone asking if I’d be interested in a project. Yes, of course, I’m always interested in a project.
In this case, Auburn University at Montgomery was preparing to celebrate the passage of Act 403, which established the university in 1967, by recognizing the “Top 50 at 50” in a publication. So, they needed someone to interview and write profiles of these 50 alumni.
I began the project in November. The first person I interviewed was an educator in Hawaii, the second an artist in Montgomery. The third managed a renowned stroke center, the fourth was a southern food expert. Next I spoke with someone who heads an office on the West Coast for the IRS Criminal Investigation Division.
Over the months of assignment, I talked to several high-ranking military officers who’d had responsibilities around the globe. There were also attorneys, investment advisors, accountants, office holders, medical professionals and construction professionals. One of the interviewees helped build the Atlanta airport terminal in the late 1970s, one lady was involved in real estate developments in downtown Chicago, and another gentleman was responsible for prestigious building projects in Philadelphia.
I went to campus to place a call to Argentina (though this was his cell phone number, and he was actually in Brazil when we spoke). On another occasion, I was at my desk when I took a call from the United Arab Emirates. I also talked to a man originally from The Netherlands. Incidental to other profile details, I found out that he was 6’11”. He had come to campus on a basketball scholarship.
I finished the project last week. And here’s just some of what I learned from the experience.
Everyone was very nice, easy to talk to and enjoyable to hear. I like to listen to people’s stories, and they all – every one of them – had good stories to tell. They appreciated being recognized, though they often downplayed the idea that they should have been the one selected.
For many of them, they began their college studies in humble circumstances. They lived at home, worked fulltime and attended classes at night. Several had to deal with “do-overs” when earlier attempts in school didn’t go so well. For most, their attendance was influenced by happenstance – a family’s move to Montgomery, a relocation during their career, a chance encounter with other Auburn Montgomery students. Or they were finishing degrees after completing military service, and they happened to be in this area.
Most remembered certain faculty members and could easily pick out something they learned in school that they continue to apply. And others would try to give me an answer to that question, even if they struggled with 40-year-old memories of a brief time in Montgomery during a military career.
Still, I cannot emphasize enough: everyone – regardless of circumstance, career field or global location – was very nice, easy to talk to and enjoyable to hear.
Figuring out how to manage the project – in light of my other duties – was also relevant to the experience, and here were several insights I picked up in that area.
Phone Call Punctuality
I liked to set appointments for the interviews so that people would be ready to talk – so that their minds would be in focus, and they could think about the purpose of my call. Also, I wanted my mind to be in focus as well. It’s hard to keep 50 people straight. I needed to review my notes prior to the call to remember who I was calling.
The point is: if I set a call at 2 p.m., I would call at 2 p.m.
Sometimes the alumni would say, “You are calling right on time.” The fact that people commented on my calling “right on time” was interesting, but I didn’t know any other way to do it. I would wonder to myself, “Why wouldn’t I call right on time? When would other people call, if not right on time? Isn’t that why people set times?”
Time zone math is tricky. As I set appointments, I would have to figure out what time zone they were in and convert it to my own. I didn’t get the math wrong, as far as I know, but the gentleman calling from Abu Dhabi called an hour early.
Actually, I had an instinct that he might. I work at home, as some of you know, and I had worked on a project earlier that morning before taking my shower. The call was to be at 11 a.m., so I knew (or so I thought) that I had plenty of time. However, at 9:39 a.m., I was nearly dressed but still had to dry my hair when I had this sudden panicked moment: “What if he calls an hour early?” At 9:40 a.m., I thought, “I better get ready in case he calls an hour early.” So I dried my hair quickly, got to my laptop, reviewed my notes, and at 10 a.m., his call came in. When he realized the time mistake, he apologized, explaining that he was thinking Eastern Time. I said, “That’s not a problem at all. I am ready.”
Balancing Disruption and Scheduling
I have two models for taking care of business. One is the disruption model. People I work with routinely send me an email with a request, and I take care of it as soon as I can. The other is a scheduling model, where I plan preparation time, writing time and deadlines.
Part of the responsibility of taking on a new sizeable project that lasts for a season is keeping my commitment to existing clients who, I certainly hope, will stay with me during the seasons to come. So if I planned out my whole day, but then got a request in the middle of that day from an existing client who operates on the disruption model … well, that’s not someone I would want to tell, “I’ll get to you in two weeks.” That’s more of a, “Give me a minute, and I’ll see what I can do.”
Balancing these two models required a few extra hours at times, though it’s always a good idea to be loyal to loyal clients. That’s really the point.
Focused on the Project’s Purpose
The other thing that’s important about working on a project like this is always remembering: it’s not my project. It’s the client’s project. The purpose of the project was never going to be my interview techniques or my writing skills. Those are a means to an end. The purpose of the project is the client’s relationship with the one being profiled. Therefore, in assigning me this project, the client was allowing me access to part of their treasury. That’s why it was essential to be prepared, polite, punctual and professional. Those are really important qualities to have on hand when you are interviewing 50 people.
My currency is also relational. Good project management brings more projects through connections that are built during the previous projects. That’s how my work works.
As a matter of fact, in January, I had another inquiry about a big project. About six years ago, I worked with a client on writing chapters for a coffee table book focused on economic development in the State of Alabama. Now he’s publishing a version for Montgomery, and he needed someone to write profiles for the businesses that will be featured in the book. He asked if I would be interested in the project. “Yes, of course,” I said. I am always interested in a project.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
Until next time,
When my niece Natalie was young, she was in my care for a short time. I don’t remember where we were, what we were doing or what age Natalie was. But here’s the part I do remember. While she was in my care, she ran into something (perhaps a wall) and hit her head. When I saw it (and heard it) happen, I felt fear – for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t want Natalie to be hurt, and the impact sounded like this was going to hurt. Second, while I don’t know everything about babysitting, I do know there’s a standard protocol: don’t let the kids hit their heads. This was going to be my fault.
As Natalie wailed, I rushed to her side, held her tight and repeated, “You’re OK, you’re OK, you’re OK.” Then I pulled back to see how she really was. “Are you OK?” I asked.
She touched her head and nodded. “I’m OK,” she said. Then she repeated. “I’m OK. I’m OK.”
I had seen how this worked. I spoke words into her state of distress. She believed what I told her and acted on that belief. But also, because I had been saying those things to her as much to reassure myself, something else happened. When she spoke that belief back to my frightened heart, I believed it too.
I wonder if that is what teaching is like, when it works. You have these opportunities to help someone believe something about themselves. When you see that they listen, internalize and begin to believe, you believe it even more.
Everybody remembers their good teachers, the ones who helped them believe.
When I was a freshman at Huntingdon College, I joined the staff of the campus newspaper, the Gargoyle. My first assignment was to interview and write an article about the new English professor, Dr. Ken Deal. Over the next 24 years, he would become one of those professors that people never forget. He passed away in May, and during a memorial service, former students provided testimony of his enduring impact. Their expressions were personal, on the order of “This is what I learned from him.” “This is what he did for me.” “This is what changed in my life because of what he taught me.” It was not general or broad, as in: “This is the impact he made on literature or higher education administration” or other areas where he participated. It was how “he” made an impact on “me” — one student after another in his 24 years at the college.
For me, Dr. Deal’s affirming comments in the margins of my papers were an English major’s version of trophies. I still have some of these trophies I earned in his classroom. On one occasion in particular, he wrote on one of my writing assignments, “Your command of juxtaposition is becoming formidable.”
With that comment, he gave me a belief I have held onto since that day: my command of juxtaposition is becoming formidable. You’d be surprised how comforting those words have been over the course of my adult life. Juxtaposition is where you put two ideas side by side for the purpose of comparison or contrast. I use this literary technique all the time — not because I’m ever looking for a way to juxtapose ideas, but because that’s what I do: I juxtapose ideas.
I’ve been doing that lately — juxtaposing ideas. I am in the middle of a project where a fictional person tells the story of a real person. In 1862, my great-grandfather took a nickel of wartime pay to buy a sheet of paper to write a letter home. The words in that letter are the launching point for a story in which a teacher tells of lessons she has learned in the classroom and in her life.
I wanted to know what a teacher might be able to tell me — someone like my Aunt Minnie, my Aunt Annie or my mother — of things she has observed. What would she say to children wandering their own battlefields about how to find a sense of home wherever they are? What would this teacher say so that children would say, “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay?”
So I wrote those lessons myself — juxtaposed with that letter home and stories about my great-grandfather’s experiences. I’ll tell you more as I progress on my project.
Until next time,
P.S. There were a number of teachers in my family. My mother, my aunts, a niece, soon another niece, and apparently my grandfather, E.J. I found out about E.J.’s occupation on a visit last month to the house where he was born. I went there in search of inspiration for my story, and I was able to see where the author of that Civil War letter lived when he returned home. If you’d like to read about my visit to the house, it’s right here: http://minnielamberth.com/a-visit-to-an-old-home/