Sunday Box Talk – The Purpose of Education

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What’s the purpose of education? Nowadays, increasingly, it’s to get a job. It’s more about technical training than it is about educating the mind. And yet, with the proliferation of smartphones, always-on internet connectivity, and ever expanding inflow of information sources, we need the benefits that a good education bring more than ever before.

In classical terms, to be educated meant that one knew how to think. The discipline of thinking wasn’t just something one did; it required work, application, and skill. We’ve forgotten this skill, and that’s a bad thing. It used to be that an educated person would read certain pieces, in common with other educated people, and then engage in discussion about the ideas on those pieces. While the “canon” has been attacked as being male, white, and patriarchal, the ideas contained in it are as valuable now as they were fifty or a hundred years ago. There’s nothing wrong with studying the classical canon, and then adding to it all the rich heritage of minority and women’s voices.

One thing lacking in today’s environment is the ability to hold a competing idea in one’s head long enough to understand the other person’s point of view. We’ve lost the art of discourse. It used to be that one could listen to another person’s thoughts, digest them, and then either disagree or agree once one was certain one understood them. In fact, Mortimer J. Adler argues that one cannot truly agree nor disagree until and unless one has fully comprehended what the other has had to say.

Something else I’ve noticed is that we don’t have gatekeepers for incoming information anymore. It comes at us with the velocity of a fire hose, all the time. If we’re away from our computer, it comes to our smartphone. If it doesn’t come there, it’s on the television at the gas pump, (how offensive is that?). When my grandfather was alive, you would get a large newspaper on Sundays and the day was spent relaxing and reading – long – articles.  Now, news is delivered in soundbytes, and the average length of articles is 300 to 500 words – a blip when compared to articles from even just fifteen years ago.

So What Do We Do To Educate Ourselves?

There are many tools available to us.  Some of them are modern, and related to the internet.  Some of them are old-school, and related to how we control incoming information.

  1. Read.  A lot.  Whether it’s ebooks, traditional books, or Bartleby.
  2. Turn off the inflow.  Try it for one day a week – don’t go on the internet, social media, or your smartphone.  See what the real world has to offer you.
  3. Write.  Journal and get in touch with your own thoughts.
  4. Read about other smart people.  A couple awesome biographies are by Benjamin Franklin and Montaigne’s essays.
  5. Throw a party and talk about smart stuff.  Why not revive the Victorian tradition of the salon?  Have cocktails, snacks, and talk about the great ideas.

What about you, Dear Reader?  What do you want to learn?

Sunday Box Talk – Getting Back To Basics

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Getting back to basics – what are the three boxes of life? It’s an idea from Richard Nelson Bolles, author of What Color Is Your Parachute. He points out that the three big boxes most of us deal with are education, work, and retirement. Bolles proposes something that’s nothing short of revolutionary – why keep the boxes in the traditional order of school when we’re young, then work for most of our adult life, then retire in our “golden years?” Why not mix it up a little?

I’ve talked about the idea of changing things up and the objections I hear amount to one thing: fear of challenging the status quo. What does following the status quo give us? Don’t reject it out of hand: predictability, stability, and familiarity. Those things aren’t trifles, and they’re not to be sneezed at. In times of great stress, usually it’s one or more of those three things that are impacted that causes all the stress. Why would we want to bring that about ourselves?

Here’s why: when we do things out of order, such as work as youth, or go back to school in later years, or take a year or six months off as a sabbatical, it teaches us things about ourselves that we would learn in no other way. By challenging the patterns that have become routine, it engages parts of our brain that aren’t usually in use as we go through life on auto-pilot. While it can be scary, it can be exhilarating and allow us to see things in new ways.

We also have a myth that we’re supposed to be good at something before we even start it. I can’t tell you how many people argue with me when I suggest they go back to school to study something that interests them. “Oh, I’m no good at such-and-such.” Being good at something is what you aim to be after education, not before.

If we open our minds to the possibility of changing around the order of things, what might happen? We might go back to school after forty, or fifty, or seventy. We might take a sabbatical and go live somewhere rural to study sustainable farming. We might take a gap year before going to college, to give ourselves time to cool off after high school and get some needed life skills.

What about you, Dear Reader? What might you try if you shook up your status quo?

Sunday Box Talk – The Toolbox

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“Success doesn’t come to you, you go to it.”
– Marva Collins

It’s easy to lament the things we don’t have yet. The media bombards us with images of more successful, more slender, more athletic, more successful people every day. New media come online every day, methods of distracting us from ourselves: even the dollar store as the “dollar store radio network” to talk to you while you hunt for bargains. Is it any wonder we feel bombarded? Or, worse, bad about ourselves because we’re not where we want to be?

I offer a thought for a beleaguered mind: gratitude.

Give thanks for the good that exists in your life, right now. Even if there doesn’t seem like much you could possibly be grateful for, the fact that you are alive and reading this newsletter is enough. Imagine if you were in Baghdad right now, sitting in the bombed-out shell of your temple, trying to pray with the sounds of mortars booming in the distance? What if one hits your neighborhood? The fact that we live in relative peace and calm, pursuing making a living and our hobbies, is a subject we can offer much gratitude for. Sure, not everything is perfect. But much of it is good.

Try numbering a sheet from one to ten, and write down ten things you’re grateful for. See if you can’t go past ten. How do you feel?

Now I propose that we become pilgrims on the path to self. We will do this together, side by side, shoulder to shoulder. Our tools are our bright minds and our love for each other. The first item in our toolbox is Gratitude. Learn to say thank you with an open heart. If you need ideas for how, go grab a copy of Sarah Ban Breathnach’sSimple Abundance, one of the best books written in the last two decades. Try her Gratitude Journal. Select a small, pretty book. Each night, just before you go to sleep, write down five things you are grateful for from the day. That’s all. Just five.

Y Is For… Yarn! – Of course!

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I love yarn, (which is probably obvious, since I wrote about the joys of a yarn stash on my main blog today, too).  But I do love the stuff – I adore digging my hands into it, squeezing it, feeling it reflect the heat of my hands back to me.  I relax when I feel yarn – it’s a very tactile sense of calm.  Sometimes, when I’m working on a new design project and don’t yet see the pattern in my mind, I will walk around the house holding a ball or skein of the yarn.  Doing that lets me meditate with it, commune with it, and let it speak to me.

I know that probably sounds a little wooly-bully (or, let’s face it, a little nuts), but it’s true.  Designing for me is a very tactile process.  I think it has to do with the fact that I don’t translate 2D to 3D in my head, so my design process is physical and not conceptual.  By holding the yarn, I literally “get a feel for it” and am able to see what kind of textile I want to create with it.  Is it light and airy?  Do I want to make something lacy?  Is it heavy and chunky, with a strong body?  Cables might be more the ticket.  This particular yarn in the picture is a Merino wool and alpaca blend with a little bit of silk I think, if memory serves.  It doesn’t have a whole lot of bounce to it, so it’s not very springy; but it’s very soft.  The shine that it has, which isn’t all that visible in this picture due to the lighting, says “sparkle” to me – and I plan to use beads in the lace.

What about you, Dear Reader?
Do you think in words, images, sensations, or something else?

Listening

I’ve been very busy this week, as you know, between the conference, my new job, and Rachel’s visit. While I wish I could have had the opportunity to take this week off as vacation, I’m grateful to have a job I enjoy and am good at.  As I learn the ropes, I’ve been thinking a lot about listening.

Speed is all well and good, as is efficiency. But the late Stephen Covey said you manage things, you lead people.  I’ve noticed a growing trend where that idea is forgotten, and we try to speed up past the point where we can hear anything but the wind of our own passage, much less the people around us.

Manners are there for a reason.  Do we really need to learn that the hard way?  They sprang up in a society that dueled and were a way of avoiding potentially life-threatening disagreements.  We’ve forgotten that, and seem to think that manners are for the old or boring.  The slow.

Today, I urge you to take a deep breath along with your morning coffee.  Make an effort to look at people when they talk to you, to let them get out what they have to say before you interrupt and ask questions.  I’m not advocating listening to that one person who needs to talk without an off button.  What I am advocating is to be present to the people around us and to give ourselves the dignity of focusing fully on the task at hand.

And remember, it’s Friday.  TGIF!

Tue Cent Twosday – In Defense of the Pen

Diarists know what many of us have forgotten – people have been chronicling their own stories in diaries and journals for more than a thousand years. In order to better know themselves, or to express their own truth in the face of a public reality, or just for the fun of it, people have been writing for longer than some civilizations have been around.

All that changed in the last 30 years with the advent, first, of the personal computer and then of the internet. We are seeing the first generation in the history of our planet that does not need to use the written word as it’s traditionally meant. In another generation, it will be unthinkable that some folks don’t know how to type – and it will, some predict, create a huge culture gap between those who have access to the internet and those who do not.

But that’s not my purpose today. No, today I have a humbler calling. I simply wish to defend the simple, humble, pedestrian pen. Once known to by mightier than the sword, it is now relegated to the place next to the buggy whip: a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, but obsolete.

But is it?

I argue it is not. When we write, we connect ourselves to our physical or kinesthetic truth. The study of penmanship, or graphology, can tell us quite a bit about a person and, it follows, the practice of writing can therefore tell us a lot about ourselves. We cannot get a feel for the emotion of a typist unless it is through their word choices and syntax. Yet we can know at a glance the emotional state of a writer by whether the letters are calm and even or erratic and out of control. Did the writer tear the paper with their emotion? Are there teardrops on it? Lipstick? Did the writer press hard on the paper and leave ridges on the back, or did they leave barely an impression of themselves behind?

Writing by hand can inform us of our shifting moods the way the tide can inform us of the moon’s gravitational effect on us. Subtle yet powerful, writing by hand connects us to ourselves and to our subconscious. Try writing with your non-dominant hand and you’ll see what I mean.

There is beauty in writing, even that of an untrained hand. Lovers have known this for centuries. The personal, intimate handwriting of a loved one can bring comfort in dark times, solace to the lonely. When’s the last time you sent a letter through the mail? For less than half a dollar in the U.S., only a little more if you’re sending outside it, you can bring a smile to the face of someone for whom you care. In my group of friends, we call that “Non-Bill Mail.” If you save these letters, over time they become like a scrapbook, reminding you of moments in time encapsulated in an envelope.

What would you preserve by hand if you had the time?

Next time: “In Defense of Learning to Type”

Tue Cent Twosday – The Pen vs. the Keyboard

In my writing group, I often hear complaints when I suggest we try a written exercise as opposed to one with a laptop or other computer device. I have said it before and I’ll likely say it again: writing by hand is important and valuable to anyone working with their own creativity, be they writers or other artists. In fact, I would argue that writing by hand is useful for everyone, and not just creatives. That does not mean that writing with a keyboard isn’t valuable in its own way too, but that one shouldn’t avoid handwriting altogether.

Here are the five most common complaints and suggestions on how to address them:

“I never write by hand.”

I’m surprised by how many people say this to me. What’s even more surprising is how many of them aren’t Gen Y folks. The stereotype is that Gen Y folks only type, and that Gen X and Boomers are more “old school.” I haven’t seen this stereotype borne out.

My response to it is simple: give it a try. Even if you only use it for writing exercises, think of them like you do the gym or music drills. The more you do it, the easier it gets.

“I write too slow, and forget all the things I want to say.”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Our minds become fragmented by technology. I watch people try to have a conversation during writing group, or even just write. Smart phones buzz and people immediately look at them, even mid-sentence, to see what they say. Like coffee-fueled five-year-olds, we have lost the ability to carry one thought in our minds for longer than a few moments before we are distracted, like the dog in the movie “Up.” This isn’t healthy, nor is it good for our intelligence.

Writing by hand slows us down so that we can catch up with ourselves. Typing on a computer means that we are staring at a clock, are prone to distraction from Facebook, email, and other programs, and that we can go at the speed of hyper instead of the speed of the hand. There is a reality within us that we can only hear when we slow down enough to listen.

“My hand cramps.”

This is a reasonable complaint. Like any other physical activity, stretch often and build up your strength. Maybe only write for fifteen minutes the first time, then work your way up to a longer session.

“I can’t read my own writing, so why bother?”

It’s like when we were taught to write way back when we were kids. Just practice. You’ll get better with time and attention.

“It’s more efficient to type.”

The objective isn’t to be efficient, it’s to see what we have to say. Efficiency is not the most important goal for a writer; clarity is.

Give it a try. You might be surprised what you learn.

Next time:  “In Defense of the Pen”