Posts in Me-ology
Dear Teacher, (thank you)
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I mentioned in my blog post the other day that I planned on writing a letter to my childrens' teachers, basically to thank them for what they do, and maybe as a way to put some positivity and faith back in the lives of good people who are under extra strain right now. And that is saying something - I know of very few groups of people who do more for kids, for less recognition, than teachers do.

I chose to write my letter to the principal, since my kids have 8 teachers each, as well as many non-teaching staff that are a big part of their lives. Here it is:

Dear Dr. Jordan, Teachers, and Staff at ----

I am the proud parent of two students at ----, and have had the privilege of being associated with the school for the past 3 years as my children have attended. My son Elliott is in 7th grade, and is 12. My daughter Rowen is in 8th grade, and turned 14 in February. This letter is to express my sincere gratitude to the administrators, staff, and teachers at ----. 

Like everyone in our country, I was shocked and saddened by the events in Florida on Valentine's day. No parent, no teacher, no child should ever have to go through a shooting at a school. EVER. As I heard the names of the victims read, I realized with a tremendous shock that seven of the victims were 14 years old. The same age as my kid. That made me scared. And angry. That was when I vowed to do two things - which in my small position are just about the only things I can do. First, I'm going to go to the March for Our Lives, either here in Raleigh or in DC on March 24, to show my solidarity with the student survivors in changing our country to increase the safety of kids.

Secondly, and the purpose of this letter, I decided that the courageous people who love and teach and protect my own children every day, need to hear how grateful I am. You need to hear how grateful I am. These two precious people I send into your halls every day mean everything to me, and I know that I've entrusted them into very capable hands. Almost daily, my kids come home and talk about a project or exercise or assembly that day that caught their attention. (That by itself is no small thing, I must say). They talk about teachers making jokes and having fun, making bath bombs, adopting a lizard, talking to the space station, the legendary guinea pigs. They play in the orchestra or take yoga or learn about lighthouses and cells. Their world is better and more fascinating because of the fire you and your staff have lit within them, and they'll carry those lessons - and that fire - through their whole lives. 

Nobody becomes a teacher for the fame and riches, that's for sure. They become teachers so they can influence the lives of kids, and I know that they work with and think about and pray for, and hope for, and LOVE the students they teach. I want you to know that it shows, in the lives of my own children. As a parent, that's a debt I know I can never repay, except to offer my undying gratitude and admiration for their work. For your work.

I imagine that the staff and teachers there have thought and internalized the unimaginable slaughter last week, and they still showed up at school anyway, their love for kids outweighing their fear. That kind of courage doesn't come easy, and they aren't thanked enough. They'll never be thanked enough. That they continue to provide my children with support, guidance, inspiration, and love no matter what else is happening in the country and the world earns the highest praise I can offer. That this support might extend so far as the defense of my children both frightens me and fills me with awe at their courage. Being a teacher - working at a school - is a hero's job, a sacred calling. 

Thank you for all you do, for my kids and all the others who you've reached and touched in your work. It hasn't gone unnoticed. 

With much admiration and gratitude,

Jessica Sprague, Proud ---- Parent 

NOTE: If you would like to copy any or all of this and shoot it off to a teacher or school staffer who could use your gratitude today, please feel free. I bet it would brighten a day or two.

This is What 'Self-Care' Really Means
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I was given this article recently, and here at the beginning of the year I think it's perfect. We tend to think of the consumer version of self-care: some kind of indulgence outside our normal routine. But maybe self-care is pushing through the hard stuff that you know will make life better in the end. 

Here's the full text of the article, written by Brianna West, Nov 2017

Self-care is often a very un-beautiful thing. 
It is making a spreadsheet of your debt, and enforcing a morning routine, and cooking yourself healthy meals, and no longer just running away from your problems and calling the distraction a solution. 
It is often doing the ugliest thing you have to do, like sweat through another workout, or tell a toxic friend you don’t want to see them anymore, or get a second job so you can have a savings account, or figure out a way to accept yourself so that you’re not constantly exhausted from trying to be everything, all the time and then needing to take mandated breaks from living in order to do basic things like drop some oil into a bath and read Marie Claire and turn your phone off for a day. 
A world in which self-care has to be such a trendy topic is a world that is sick. Self-care shouldn’t be something we resort to because we are absolutely so exhausted that we need some reprieve from our own relentless internal pressure. 
True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake. It is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from. And that often takes doing the thing you least want to do. It often means looking at your failures and disappointments square in the eye and re-strategizing. It is choosing not to satiate your immediate desires. It is letting go. It is choosing new. It is disappointing some people. It is making sacrifices for others. It is living in a way that other people won’t, so maybe you can live in a way that other people can’t. 
It is letting yourself be normal. Regular. Unhurried. Real. It is sometimes having a dirty kitchen and deciding your ultimate goal in life isn’t going to be having abs and keeping up with your fake friends. It is deciding how much of your anxiety comes from not actualizing your latent potential, and how much comes from the way you were being trained to think before you even knew what was happening. 
If you find yourself having to regularly indulge in consumer self-care, it’s because you are disconnected from actual self-care, which has very little to do with “treating yourself” and a whole lot to do with parenting yourself and making choices for your long-term wellness.
It is no longer using your hectic and unreasonable life as justification for self-sabotage in the form of liquor or procrastination. It is learning how to stop trying to “fix yourself” and start trying to take care of yourself - and maybe you’ll find that taking care lovingly will attend to a lot of the problems you were trying to fix in the first place. 
It means being the hero of your life, not the victim. It means rewiring what you have until your everyday life isn’t something you need therapy to recover from. It is no longer choosing a life that looks good over a life that feels good. It is giving the hell up on some goals so you can care about others, or allowing non-decision to make your decisions for you. It is being honest even if that means you aren’t universally liked. It is meeting your own needs so you aren’t anxious and dependent on other people. 
It is becoming the person you know you want and are meant to be - however honest or ugly or painful the self-care has to be to keep you in the right direction. Salt baths and chocolate cake are ways to enjoy life, not to escape from it. 

Happy New Year, my dear! I am excited to roll on in to 2018 with you!

Picking My Outrage Battle: Depression & Suicide
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I stepped away (okay, clicked away) from working on my latest class and spotted a news story from over the weekend. Apparently a "YouTube Star" - Logan Paul who makes a ton of money touring the world, setting up stunts, one-upping himself with the cray-zay, and basically "OMG!" reacting! to! stuff! with his face! in front of a camera! in a! crazy! hat! and posting it for millions to see, visited the "Suicide Forest" Aokigahara near Mt. Fuji in Japan, - which is known for being a place where many Japanese people go to end their lives, and actually found the body of someone who had very recently died from suicide

Granted, his lil' circus posse did call the authorities. But then rather than turning off the camera or leaving the immediate area out of respect for the deceased and their devastated family (who might not have even KNOWN yet), they zoomed in close. And just blurred out the person's face. And then talked about how CRAZY it was in the Whole! History! of Crazyness! That Nobody! Could! Top! This! talked about how crazy it was and his hands and how recently this happend, whatnot, and then proceeded on to a parking lot and drank sake, and asked your kids and mine (his regular audience) to subscribe to his channel.  

Thankfully the vid was taken down, and I didn't see it. Good thing, because instead of suffocating outrage I probably would be in my car on my way to kick someone's ass. But I have read several second-by-second descriptions of it, and it sickens me. It sickens me that the one and only serious statement he made was something like, "dude, mental illness isn't a joke." But then proceeded to make a joke out of it, by zooming up close to the tragic and preventable death of someone who was a person with a family and a future and people who loved them whether they could see that or not, and made fun.

ZOOMED IN CLOSE. AND MADE FUN.

I know there's a lot to get worked up over as the year 2017 moves off (tyvm) and a brand new bright shiny year with lots of hope and possibility and sparkles rolls in (ah just in time), with politics and the economy and the NFL and puppies and the housing market and suffering and starvation and war and injustice all over the world. If I got worked up over everything I probably SHOULD, I would not be able to get out of bed. So we have to pick our outrage battles. 

Joking about suicide or making light of depression is one of my outrage battles. I know too many people, love too many people whose lives have been destroyed by mental illness, by uncontrolled depression, by suicide, for me to EVER think that this would be okay. 

Depression is a lifelong struggle for many people. It's an invisible killer, and comes with a truly staggering level of pain that's impossible to describe, but must be built over, moved around, carried on with day by day, hour by hour. It's a monster that always lurks. 

I've talked before about how things for me are up and down, and that sometimes down comes without any warning at all. When it comes to depression, I am firmly on the side of "keeping it real", and so REAL is what you are going to get. 

Truth: I was feeling off-ish all morning on Sunday (Dec 31), and by the time we got to church, I asked everyone to go inside and I'd be in there in a minute. And then I just sat in the car and fell apart. Everything crashed at once and I just couldn't breathe, couldn't stop crying. Couldn't stop feeling desolate and desperate and filled with pain. Here is the text I sent to my bestie, as tears were running down my face:

12:23 p.m Sunday

I am sitting in the car outside my church building, and I need to write to someone. I choose you because you get it. The air is getting cold around me, but I can't bring myself to get out and go inside and smile. At a time and place in life and circumstance that I should be happy and peaceful I can see the gap with my reality most clearly, and maybe that is why  it hurts more. I feel sad, so sad and desperate, with a hollow longing for SOMETHING, for a nap, or for rest, or an OK you can put down your burden for a bit. I'm tired, mama. So tired.

I then did what I know I HAD to do: go somewhere safe and sleep. I texted my people who were already inside, and the people who were planning on me being at church (all of whom know about the struggle and have given me extra-generous compassion), and went home. Cried. Slept. Felt better.

So that was me 3 days ago. Right back there again. Not to the darkest of the dark places, but enough that I was debilitated by it for a whole day and night. You probably know I've been on meds and in therapy for 14 years, and on and off for years before that. Nobody should be fooled by now into thinking that it's something that a) will ever be completely under control, or b) will ever just go away. And yet, that misunderstanding keeps coming up. 

For me, I've definitely lost any shred of concern I ever had that someone would judge me or think less of me, or that I'd be disadvantaged because of my mental illness, but I'm lucky. I have a whole bunch of people in my life who, even if they can't fully understand, can at least give me compassion. Can give me their generosity while I sometimes stumble and sometimes simply can't. Just can't.

I'm lucky because I don't work for a boss who might use that information - even if it's illegal to do so - to my disadvantage. I don't belong to a family who sees depression and medication as a weakness, or parents who think mental illness is just a phase, or would be embarrassed if anyone found out their kid goes to therapy, or that it will go away if only I just ... (ate better, read scriptures, prayed, etc)... 

I know so many people aren't as lucky as me. Who feel like they can't be honest. Who can't find some way to find solace or safety or hope. It hurts as badly for them as for me, but they can't say, or won't, and so they just suffer on. It's excruciating. All-consuming. And I'm offended by ANYONE who makes light of or jokes about that kind of pain. It is no less appalling than dumping someone out of a wheelchair they need, or grabbing someone's crutches and throwing them in the street and then saying they're "raising awareness." Wheelchairs are real, y'all. And crutches.

So, when someone, whose life is full of hope and promise even though they can't see it right now, who might have benefited from meds and therapy or a hospital stay, or even just a friend to stick by them, finds themselves in the woods (literally or figuratively), and sees no other way out of the pain, and takes their own life my heart is broken, because I get it. Oh I get it. It kicks in this visceral mama-bear instinct in me that screams to PROTECT those who can't protect themselves. To FIGHT for the people who are already knocked down. To RECOGNIZE the pain someone else is in and do my best to shield them from extra hurt until they can get themselves looked after. Because I've been the one knocked down. I've been the one who needs protecting. And so for me, there is not enough outrage in the world. 

Final word: The world is full of awesome, generous, compassionate, good people. It also has a lot of A-holes. So I suppose if the appalling behavior of some high-profile A-holes can help keep a discussion going that improves the care and discussion and attitude toward depression and suicide, it'll be ok. It certainly has me raising MY voice again.

Important:

If this is YOU and you read this, call the hotline 1800-273-TALK and talk, just talk - there will ALWAYS be a kind supporter on the other end, someone rooting for you. Text the crisis text line. Gather your circle around you. Get somewhere safe and text someone. Go to the ER (for real, you can, just go). You will be ok. I promise you won't regret staying alive.

Much love, 

JS 

 

Finding Totality.

I mentioned that we'd been planning to travel into the path of totality for the 2017 Eclipse for some time. We followed this totality map from NASA to get as close as possible to the center line, where the viewing would be as long as possible - still a seemingly-paltry 2 minutes 40 seconds. So maybe in total 20 hours of planning across a couple of months (including about 4 hours the night before as we changed final plans at the hotel), plus 12 hours of driving, a day off from work and school, paying twice the $ for a hotel, waking at 6 to head to our destination (Lake Murray, more on that in a second), then sitting for about 7 hours as the South Carolina heat cranked up into the mid-90s, all for that breathless 2 1/2 minutes of complete totality. No wonder we know so few people here in NC who decided to pull THAT trigger. On paper it definitely makes no sense, and I have to admit I questioned it as we checked in to our hideously overpriced room in Florence, SC on Sunday, to prep for the second leg first thing Monday morning.

So was it worth all of it? I told my dad in an email (more on that later) that we'd have done it twice over to have that same 2 1/2 minute experience, and I'll probably go further than that when we get the chance to head to New York to repeat it in about 7 years. 

And yes. It was worth it

To marvel with the crowd of new friends as the shadows sharpened and the world darkened into a colorless sunset and the crickets began to chirp. To sit in a dome of near-complete darkness with several thousand of my fellow human beings, shouting and screaming, because we couldn't NOT shout and scream for the joy and wonder? To remove my eclipse glasses and tear the filter off my camera lens, and watch with tear-filled eyes, as a perfect circle of perfect blackness revealed the dazzling whiteness of the sun's corona, and the stars began to shine.

To see this, with my very own eyes.

This is a photo I took, with my comparatively modest 200mm lens. Still pretty proud of it though: This involved setting up my camera on a tripod pointing almost directly overhead, covering it with a makeshift eclipse filter, and then during totality manually adjusting settings and focus with my fingertips. 

Worth it? 

I will never be the same human being again. 

The Power of The Stars

One thing the stars have always had for me, is this ability to make me feel both infinitely small and infinitely important at the same time. To lay down in a field and scan across the dome of darkness at the spectacle of cloud and constellation, and then imagine those tiny lights, not as dots on a black sheet, but as giant, impossible fires in an impossibly vast infinity of space. Stretching literally back to the beginnings of time itself.

And yet, here I am, laying here on this fragile crust of earth beneath a tenuous swath of atmosphere, so absurdly tiny in comparison - but knowing that I am. I AM. And I - my own self, that I have such trouble loving sometimes, and such trouble acknowledging my own lovability sometimes - I belong to this grand universe. Belong as surely as any vast star or great sweep of galaxies, I'm a part of a grand plan, organized down to the smallest blade of grass I'm laying on. Organized by a Creator so dazzled by life and color, so loving of His children that he made it all for us. We, you and me, are the purpose of that mighty passion, so gorgeously arrayed across the night sky. The universe is infinite, yes - but its Great God, hidden from my mortal sight wherever He is hidden - knows my name, and loves my soul. 

The Edge of Heaven, The Crown of God

On Monday, for the first time in my life, I got a glimpse of that Heaven. In fact, that was the word that kept ringing in my mind as something deep in me recognized it for what it was: heaven. The edge of heaven

The word corona is Latin for crown, and (hello, word nerd), it in turn comes from the Greek word for wreath or garland. Surely this is as close as I will come in mortality to seeing the crown of God himself, and for me, it was fundamentally life-changing. 

It's no wonder to me that so many people of faith have described being in the total eclipse as an intensely spiritual experience. There's no other way to describe that feeling of resonance, of reverence, of awe. Of being in the Presence of something so vast, so majestic, so powerful, that has been hidden in plain sight all along. Just thinking about the dazzling pearlescent spikes surrounding a jet black hole gives me chills. The edge of heaven. The crown of God himself.

Jared took a timelapse of the sun darkening, which I will post. Elliott took a video of the totality, in which you can hear all the people around us shouting and screaming, and he and I loudest of all. How can we keep from singing? I've also got a couple of videos of me just riffing on the experience right after, that I'll transcribe. Stay tuned.

Your Turn: Eclipse 2017

I'd love to hear where YOU were for the Great Eclipse? Did you get supremely lucky and simply stand outside as the world darkened and you saw the sun with your naked eyes? Or did you travel for the experience? Tell me about it, ok? Stories are my heart and soul, as you know. 

Billboard of the Day: Genealogy

For months now, I've been loosely keeping track of funnies that are said around me. I've been calling them the Billboard of the Day. Now I want to share.

From my assistant Sonya, having done some family history research for our July family history month at JS.com:

S: So genealogy is a little like stalking.

Me: Genealogy is like stalking, except for dead people. Which makes it ok. 

9/11 Pentagon Photos: This Was Tough to Read.

It has been more than 15 years since the 9/11 attacks in New York, and Washington D.C. Of course in the years since then there have been documentaries, coffee table books, countless photo sites and blog posts - perhaps even to the extent that we've grown used to seeing the photos of mounds of rubble, of first the search and then the recovery at the World Trade Center, and those terrible, terrifying video clips of the plane that hits the second tower, and the first tower itself collapsing. I think for those of us who were alive on 9/11 those Twin Tower images have become like an annual pilgrimage, brought out once a year to be reflected on. 

9/11 Twin Towers: Well Documented

For my part, those video clips are burned in memory, and I will never, as long as I live, forget what it felt like to see that.  You don't have to, of course, but here is a vid you can watch to remember. 

The events of September 11, 2001, arranged into a news narrative, as they unfolded live on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, BBC, and Sky News. Also included are notable excerpts from the FAA and NORAD audiotapes, a 9-1-1 call to a New York City dispatcher, and a portion of the recording from United Airlines Flight 93's cockpit voice recorder.

My little sister was serving an LDS mission in New York City on 9/11, and I clearly remember the wait through all that day before we were able to find out that she had been in White Plains and was safe. So relieved. Surely nobody from our little town of 1200 in Southeast Idaho would have been anywhere near there. In one respect I was right - as far as I know, nobody I knew was directly involved in New York City on 9/11. But in another, I was very wrong, because New York wasn't the only place attacked that day.

9/11 Pentagon

I clearly remember getting a phone call from my mom that my friend Brady Howell had been killed at the Pentagon that Tuesday.

At the time, and since then, I think that perhaps the Pentagon attack has been a bit of a footnote. Partly, of course, that's because so many more people lost their lives, and so much more was utterly laid waste in New York City that day. And I think partly it's because many of the photos and footage were held out from release by the government. It is the headquarters of the defense department, after all. 

The Pentagon memorial has long since been built. Brady's name is remembered on a plaque and inscribed on one of the benches in the Pentagon memorial.

But I think that very lack of photo and video media is partially to blame for the nearly forgotten Pentagon attack - why it is so often only a footnote in our annual 9/11 pilgrimage. And maybe that's why this CNN article, that the FBI finally released 9/11 Pentagon photographs hit me so hard.

I've had long years and my own annual pilgrimages through photos and videos from New York City to process. But these new Pentagon photos bring back the rawness of learning that my own friend was lost. This photo in particular, makes my heart squeeze, and the tears fall on my hands as I write:

The two men holding flags in the foreground are obviously soldiers, simply by the way they are standing. They represent the earliest honor guard, the truest military measure of respect for fallen soldiers, as lost colleagues and friends - my friend - are found and pulled free in the rubble behind them. 

In the intervening years since these terrible, terrifying, heartbreaking photos were taken - since my friend Brady died - trapped somewhere in that very rubble in the photo above - I've had two gorgeous children, lived a life of such richness and meaning that, if I had been killed in 2001, I never would have known.

I've had 16 extra years on Earth, to explore and learn and savor, to read stories with and snuggle my little sleepy ones. To hold hands with my sweetheart. To stand in awe of so many blessings. And yes, to weep and grieve and pray for peace and relief when none seemed to come. But to live.

Today I'll look at the photos (most of which are in the CNN article above) and grieve some, yes. And I shared them here so that maybe a few others who need to grieve can, too. But I'll also simply be grateful to God for my 16 extra years, and for the time right now to be up and doing. Earth is a blessing. Life is a blessing. And the measure of our gratitude for it is how we spend that time.

-JS

So Long Summer!

I had a great summer. It was flipping hot. This was August 13, coming back out to my car in a parking lot somewhere. 

Aside from the heat, which honestly is expected here (it is North Carolina, after all, and they don't make too much of a secret that it's HOT in the summertime), we had some great experiences. To recap:

  • I sent my parents on an LDS mission to Kobe, Japan. (really, I participated from afar)
  • Rowen finished 6th grade with flying colors & good friends. Being 12 is really, really hard.
  • I spent 6 days in the woods with my kid at Girls' camp. Sweaty. Oh, so sweaty. I actually don't think I've ever sweated that much during one 7-day stretch. But totally disconnected from modern life & convenience, living in tents, hiking, tubing, swimming, rock climbing, the works. I loved it, and so did she. Best quote, said during the grueling 2.5 mile hike up the mountain to Hanging Rock, NC? "Heavenly Father made this view just for you, hoping that you'd go up and see it. So let's go." 
  • We went to the Oregon coast for a week (and then had 2 weeks at home without kids! yeah!) Drove to sights along the coast, dined on the most amazing Belgian waffles at the Chalet in Newport, OR, and ate lunch at a GREAT biker bar-turned Vietnamese restaurant with Jared's extended family - including his 94-year-old Grandma. Now that is a memorable sentence, right there. Break it down. ;)
  • We spent the 4th of July in Jacksonville, FL with my soul sister (aka Sister-in-Law) and their 9 kids, plus grandparents. 
  • After 1 1/2 years of homeschool (from mid 4th through all of 5th grade), I sent Elliott to 6th grade at public school, along with Rowen, who was entering 7th. They started school the end of July. This one has caused a lot of stress and worry for me over the past several months - to enroll, not to enroll? Would he be ready? It's mid-september now, and things are going really, really well.
  • Celebrated my 41st birthday the end of August. Rowen baked me a red velvet cake with buttercream frosting from scratch, and I got breakfast in bed!
  • I volunteered to help out with spirit wear this year at the kids' school. I have been designing the t-shirts, which we'll sell at our gear drive in October. I've done t-shirts for my own events in the past - both for Capoeira and for Spraguefest, and I've decided I REALLY like making t-shirts
  • I'm in the works making another shirt for the Triangle Survivors of Suicide annual walk to raise awareness. I volunteered after being asked by my counselor and her husband - he lost an adult son to suicide, and formed the local chapter. I'll show you that design when it's finalized. 

Next Post! -JS

Me-ologyJessica SpragueComment
In Memoriam: Elie Wiesel

This is the Instagram feed for #eliewiesel as it is going on right now. So cool. 

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Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, memoirist, professor, and humanitarian, died on July 2. His masterpiece is his memoir of his experience in two different concentration camps during World War II. If you haven't read it yet, or lately, I recommend it. 

I first read "Night" by Elie Wiesel in my high school English class. I grew up in a very small town (of 1200) in the middle of Idaho, and this was the first time I ever remember being punched breathless by a book. At 15, I couldn't EVER have imagined that there had been a horror like this in human history. It widened my world, changed me, haunts me to this day, and I will love my teacher forever for giving me that experience. I will love this book forever for that, too - in that "thanks for the hard lesson and for returning me a handful of my own teeth" kind of way. 

Elie Wiesel died yesterday, and I think the celebration - the mourning of his passing, yes - but the celebration of his eloquence and the weight of his words because of the horror he suffered is a perfect counterpoint to the celebrations we're having this weekend for Independence Day. "Night" is one of the supreme accounts of the Holocaust, and the lifetime of humanitarian work and speaking out for the silent and suffering he spent after his experience is what we can remember. That we must never allow human beings to be treated like this again. 

There are millions of people on earth RIGHT NOW who - while not being herded into camps to die - are running for their lives from hatred, oppression, and war. Are being turned away at the doors of country and city and state. 

We say this weekend, "Let Freedom Ring," and we relish the victory here in our own country. That freedom has its costs (you know, so every jerk with a megaphone can say whatever he wants, right? But so can I, and that's what matters). NO PRICE is too high to pay so that all the world might join us in celebration of freedom - from war, from oppression, from terror. 

In remembrance of Elie Wiesel and our commitment to honor the humanity of every human being, maybe we could do a little something extra this weekend - a little donation to humanitarian relief, a little love for the people around us who are different, a little more love for that flag of freedom, a little longer on our knees in prayer for the silent and suffering. 

Rest in peace, Mr. Wiesel. At long last, be at peace.

Welcome to the Beginner Throwdown. You In?

Are you a beginner at something? Consider this the first move in The Beginner Throwdown Challenge. 

You are challenged to put a new skill on display for the world to see. Have you (or did you) start something - anything - after the age of ~30? 

I'll go first.

Me and my (yet to be named) violin!

Me and my (yet to be named) violin!

I mentioned in my earlier post that I've been playing violin for a total of about 11 months (it's 14 months since I started). And I also mentioned, although it bears repeating, that it's really hard to do. Part of what makes it hard is knowing I'm not there yet. Really not anywhere yet. And being ok with that, and still showing up at the music stand every day.

But I was also pretty overwhelmed with the number of comments and emails from other women, who have started playing an instrument or learning a new skill as an adult. First off: I am so stinking proud of you. You make me want to keep showing up at the music stand, forever.

So, because you make me brave, imma lay this following rendition of my very favorite LDS hymn right out there for you. I just set up my phone by my practice spot, and after a few restarts, here we go! 

We Are Not Too Old. Not Ever. 

I'm actually a little surprised how nervous I am to post this. It's hard to be a beginner, but it's WAY HARDER to be a beginner where other people can see. The "what I'm doing" doesn't matter. The "how good you are" doesn't matter either. The part that DOES matter is this: 

WE ARE NOT TOO OLD TO BEGIN.  

That is the truth for the lie, right there. The Lie? That at 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 we are simply too old to start something we always wanted to do. Music. Dance. A language. Flying a plane. Theater. Woodworking. Glass-blowing. Sailboarding. Hang-gliding. Photography. Gardening. Voice lessons. It's all out there, waiting to be embraced. Made part of you. 

I think that the hardest part is that we're afraid that in our beginner-ness, when we're flapping like baby birds, that other people are gonna think we're too old. Why are you bothering, woman? Isn't it time you just went gracefully into that good night? 

Well, haters (and especially that inner hater who puts this stuff on repeat and keeps us from our dreams), I say hell no I will not.

Until your last day on Earth, you have the right and the responsibility to keep learning, keep improving, keep beginning at things you want to, no matter how many wrinkles (or kids, or miles on your car, or candles on your cake, or aches in your back) you have accumulated. Consider that video up there (whew, so hard to post) your permission slip. I've wanted for years to be able to make music and there by the grace of God, I can.  

Now You: What Have You Begun? What Will You Start?

So here's the throwdown. Let's see YOU in your beginner glory! Have you started playing an instrument? Are you learning a new art or crafting skill? Started taking Photoshop classes (ahem...)? Maybe it's yoga or programming. Doesn't matter. But I hope you share it. So hike up those big girl pants, post an image or a vid or tell a story about what you've begun, and then CHALLENGE someone else. 

NOTE: even if you aren't STILL a beginner, give us an image or a story of you when you were a grown-up beginner. :) 

Consider this your double-dog dare. Let the throwdown begin. And I'll think of a prize. Post here, tag on FB, or let's use the #beginnerthrowdown hash on Pinterest and Instagram. Ah! I can't wait! :) 

xo,

-JS

I started Violin Lessons at 39.

I don't consider myself to be a musician. An writer, yes. A designer, yes. An artist - probably. A musician? Nope. I once played a little piano, a little guitar. Jared plays the guitar pretty well, and we put Elliott in violin when he turned 7, because that was the instrument he wanted to play. I've mentioned several times how amazing it is to hear live music being played in my house. But I haven't told you this story yet. ;) First though, as always: backstory.

Meeting Ms. Petia

By total chance in 2012 we met an extraordinary woman named Petia Radneva-Manolova. She had recently moved to the area from California (via Bulgaria, where she was born, and she'd been playing with orchestras all over the world). Elliott and I both loved her immediately, not only for her warmth and humor and excellence at teaching - because she truly LOVES showing people how to play - but for her incredible relationship to the violin as an extension of herself, even something MORE than herself.

Ms. Petia. at Elliott's recital, december 2015

Ms. Petia. at Elliott's recital, december 2015

She understands and relishes the  opportunity to reach people right down to their souls. It's partly the magic of live music, especially when it's played by a virtuoso, and right in front of you. And it's way more than skill, and even more than art, although it's both of those things. Her playing is transcendent.

I am an exaggerator. I know it. Everything is Awesome for me, as the Lego song says. And it's at times like these, when I find myself sitting as she plays for us at the end of a lesson, with my eyes closed to the heavens and tears streaming down my face, that I regret all my exaggerations, because I have no words left to explain what her playing IS for me. It's spirit, and love, and a mountain stream, and the fog rolling in off the sound. It's hope, and goodness, and dancing in dappled light, and the joy of larks in the morning. It's the voice of God. 

I told her (and this was not even entirely a joke) that if she didn't mind, could I just set up a little pillow and snacks in the corner while she practiced and taught lessons? Elliott teases me because I've cried at every lesson I've attended. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, and didn't have an opportunity to hear live classical music until I was an adult. So maybe that's why her work is so breathtaking to me. Why I really do cry every time she plays. She should probably actually be a little creeped out by me. I'm glad she's not. 

Indeed, she seemed really delighted - truly, deeply delighted, when I told her last February that I'd like to learn to play. I wouldn't have been brave enough if it weren't for her, and for my son. And so about 14 months ago, it began.

in the beginning: it was hard.

In our very first lesson, Petia told me that the violin is the most difficult instrument to learn how to play. This is apparently a matter of some dispute among musicians, especially if you play the french horn or the oboe. But no guitarist or pianist who really knows is going to argue the point, and neither will I.

Example: It took me - when I was 8 - about an hour to learn how to play "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" on the piano one-handed. On the violin - at age 39 - it took me a week.

My violin, and "The Red book"

My violin, and "The Red book"

With the violin, there is just more - a lot more - that you have to keep a handle on, in order to even make a single respectable sound. Aside from the usual musical stuff like finding the note on your instrument and keeping time as you find the next one and the next, there is also the fact that right and left hands are doing completely different things - at different angles and levels of pressure. You can't push too hard, or move the bow too slowly in relationship to that pressure, or pull the bow down at a cross angle. Notes are a lot harder to find with the left hand because there aren't keys or frets. Although - you can see in the photo above, she puts stripes on to help the beginners. As you progress in skill, you get to take one stripe off, and then two, etc. Note the THREE stripes I still have.

But here's the big one: The harder you try, the worse it sounds. The violin will not be dominated. You cannot bend it to your will - you have to lower yourself in and find the perfect balance of position and angle and pressure and timing and emotion and find the note and coax it out. All while standing there and trying to find the F sharp that comes next and trying not to ding the E string because you overcorrected on the way over to the A. And then do it in an instant for the next note and the next. 

And to top it all off (this might be a matter of dispute - the french horn and oboe players haven't weighed in), badly-played violin sounds worse than any other badly-played instrument. And it's VERY easy to play badly.

One year later: it's still hard.

I've kept at it. Had to take a break for a few months, but in February I graduated to "The Red Book," which is the second in the Belwin String Builder series we mainly use in lessons. That was a really proud day. I have, if not full mastery, at least a working knowledge of such noble classics as "The Dancing Bears" and "The Happy Camel" and "The Caterpillar." Now I'm on to greater heights with "The Muffin Man." So Look Out. ;) 

I've also been bringing in the LDS Hymnbook every week and picking songs from it to work on in addition to the lessons. Being able to play "Come, Come Ye Saints" as a violin solo - much as the pioneers might have played it at their campfires on the plains - has been one of my best accomplishments (oh, and you can see that right here). I dearly love that song, and I dearly love being able to play it through with mostly all the notes. :)

A year later, I'm struggling with a lot of the same stuff. I push on the strings too hard, and I always, always overcorrect. The angle of bow between the two middle strings is about 4 inches, and I find myself dinging the next string over A LOT when I'm trying to switch between them. Because I'm nervous, and a perfectionist, and I try hard. And the violin isn't about trying hard. Practicing hard, yes. But pushing too hard, no. And I'm wound pretty tightly, as you already know. NOT trying hard, is really hard. Relaxing, letting go, trusting that the fingers and bow will make it there, THAT is hard. And it's also entirely the reason I will keep playing.

Here's why I keep playing: flow

I've been told it takes a lot of courage to begin something like this as an adult. And I guess so. I have at least 20 years on every one of my fellow-students of Ms. Petia's. And I play songs like "The Happy Camel" with as much quiet dignity as I can muster. I know what they really mean, though - is that it's hard as an adult to go into something really big as a beginner, knowing that you'll be sucky at it for a really long time. You might never get beyond the sucky phase at all, and as an adult that's a kind of defeat you see right from the start. 

But.

Every so often I play a mostly-perfect song. A really decent song, right at the top of my skill range, with a minimum of dinged strings and notes I forgot I needed to sharp or hold another count - and I feel the magic of it. Magic that I made or was part of in a way that's beyond just a person standing there with wood and horsehair in her hands. The playing becomes, for a minute or two, its own living thing I'm participating in the creation of, rather than being the sole creator. 

It's been called rapture. Some psychologists and artists call it flow. I'm going to talk about flow in a future post. It's a precious thing, and a lot of people would give up careers and fame and fortune just to pursue that flow every day, just to have it for a handful of minutes at a time. To be fully alive and aware, and somehow touching, by your ordinary action, the intangible strings of creation itself. 

Everyone has flow experiences

I know you know what I mean. Feeling an expanded, perfected universe of possibility in the context of a very narrow circumstance. Making a drawing. Making a scrapbook page. Making a meal. Playing a song on the violin. Rapture. Being able to reach that state - even for a few minutes now and then - is an enlightening and enlivening experience like no other. A HUMAN experience like no other. I've found that along with the other ways I know I can achieve flow (drawing and handcrafting and digital scrapbooking), I can achieve it in violin, and I'm hanging on to that.

I love the great sounds I make, more than I dislike the terrible ones I make. I love my teacher. I love striving for that flow when I practice and play. And frankly, I really LIKE being a beginner. As someone who is a teacher for a living, I have a ton of admiration for anyone who decides at 30 or 40 or 50 or 60+ to learn something complicated like Photoshop. And putting myself at the beginning of something worthy-but-complicated keeps me humble and appreciative. :)

Okay. Your Turn! 

1. Have you begun anything as an adult that say took great courage to start as a beginner? 

2. When was the last time you felt flow? What were you doing? Can you describe it?

3. I need a name for my violin. Ms. Petia's fiesty French lady is named Matilda. Elliott's half-size was named Hans, and his new 3/4 size is named Gretta. What should mine be? 

xo,

-JS

May: Mental Health Month

Did you know that May is Mental Health Month? One non-profit organization that is leading a campaign for awareness in May is NAMI: The National Alliance on Mental Health. I haven't - or I hope I haven't - made any secret here about the fact that I have depression. It's pretty severe. It's pretty chronic. It interferes with my life off and on even with 10+ years of stable meds and therapy. It sucks. 

It sucks in a way for which I really have no words. If I had my deepest heart's desire, it would be that I didn't have depression. 

When I was in high school I was the only person I knew who had something wrong up there (tap forehead). That was oh, 25-ish years ago. Nobody wants to admit to being a wacko, right? And anything that can't be seen really MUST be all in your head

Honestly, the stigma is part of the pain.

Stigma Free

Now, a couple decades and many thousands of conversations later, I know that I'm not the only one. I'm far from the only person I know: NAMI says that 1 in 5 Americans is affected by a mental health condition. Also I love Mayim Bialik, so be sure to watch this little clip here:

 

So you and I are in charge of whether or not it's ok to tell people out loud that you have depression. Or bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, without stigma. Or that your husband or son or daughter does. That it's ok to be brave and say "I have this struggle that you can't see, but it's a struggle all the same." And then, if you hear that from some courageous person, to give that person the respect they deserve, not only for the day-in-day-out struggle, but for their bravery, too.

On May 2, NAMI organized to have the Empire State building lit up in green in honor of National Mental Health Month.

My Story: Through the Deep Waters

I wrote a pretty grueling blog post right after the death of Robin Williams, in August of 2014. It talks in pretty detailed ways about my own struggle, some of the lowest points I've had, and some of the strategies I use (and keep using) to keep myself in a place where I can forge ahead. 

You can find that blog post here: Through the Deep Waters

What You Can Do

There are several ways you can actively participate.

Your Turn

Since it's May and we're talking about Mental Health, what do you think should change about the conversations we have concerning those who struggle? What about access to or the stigma around getting mental health care? Or maybe you're interested in alternative or integrated therapies? Mental health insurance? Specific ways we can all fight the "aloneness" that everyone with mental illness feels? What else?

Looking forward to hearing from you. 

-JS