Friday, May 18, 2018

Five Minute Friday: SECRET

Today I'm joining the Five Minute Friday linkup, where we write for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is SECRET.

Last week I watched the movie The Glass Castle, based on the best-selling memoir by Jeannette Walls, which I'd read a few years earlier. 

Walls' father was a charismatic, alcoholic dreamer with a cruel streak, and her mother was a self-absorbed amateur artist; the family moved ("skedaddled," as the father put it) constantly, often living in deprivation and squalor, until the children were, one by one, able to escape and move to New York City.

The movie was very good. Although it romanticized the father a bit and gave the abusive aspects of both parents less weight than they probably deserved, it showed the lifelong impact of family secrets.

In one scene late in the movie, adult Jeannette, who has established a career as a successful journalist, is at a restaurant with her wealthy husband and a kind older couple with whom the husband hopes to land a work contract. Jeannette has worked to keep her parents and their problems in a secret compartment of her life, and her husband (who calls her parents "insane") supports her in this -- but she is finding it harder and harder to do so. When the older couple ask about her father, Jeannette's husband cuts in, telling the lie the two of them usually tell: that Jeannette's father is "developing a technology to burn low-grade bituminous coal more efficiently." 

Jeannette excuses herself to go the bathroom, and when she returns she tells the older couple the truth: 

"My parents are squatting in an abandoned building on the Lower East Side. They were homeless for three years before that, which is pretty much how they raised us. My dad is not developing a technology for bituminous coal, but he could tell you anything that you want to know about it. He is the smartest man that I know. He is also a drunk, never finishes what he starts, and can be extremely cruel. But he dreams bigger than anyone I've ever met. And he never tries to be somebody that he's not. And he never wanted me to, either."

This admission changes the direction of Jeannette's life. She leaves her husband and the wealthy lifestyle she's been accustomed to and embraces a simpler life more in tune with the kind of person she has always been. She takes her secrets out of the compartment she's placed them in, and is then better able to integrate the good and terrible aspects of her past. She is also able to make some kind of peace with her parents, knowing she can't change them.

There's a saying that "we are only as sick as our secrets." I take this to mean that healing and growth can only happen when we are honest and stop hiding the parts of our selves or our past that cause us shame. As another of my favourite quotes (this one from Dr. Henry Cloud) says, "The truth is always your friend." 


Saturday, May 12, 2018

Five Minute Friday: INCLUDE

Today I'm joining Five Minute Friday, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is INCLUDE.

I teach an online university course in academic essay-writing. In our course, students learn how to develop a thesis statement, an outline, and strong introductory, body, and concluding paragraphs.

One problem faced by many student writers (writers of all kinds, really) is not knowing how much information to include. So we put a lot of emphasis on having a plan -- a thesis statement that sets a road map for the rest of the essay. It's a useful metaphor. If you're trying to get from Kingston to Montreal, then your road map will include stops along that journey; you don't have to worry about including Toronto in your road map because that's not part of a Kingston-Montreal trip. Likewise, in an essay, if you narrow your topic or thesis sufficiently -- let's say, you decide to write an essay about diabetes in children -- then you don't need to worry about including information about adult diabetes, because that's not part of your topic, so it's not on your road map.

Another metaphor I often use is the recipe. I tell students, "Have a general idea of what you want to make first, before you go grocery shopping. Are you going to make lasagna? or cabbage rolls? or trifle? Then look for ingredients that will contribute to that dish; don't just go the store and wander around selecting ingredients that look interesting but might not end up working together." Likewise, with an essay, they should have at least a basic idea of where they think their essay might go so that they can decide what information, sources, or data to include -- and what to exclude.

These are great principles, yet there are also times when a student will contact me and ask, "Is it OK if I change my topic? I started gathering information and realized I really want to write about X, not Y." I've even had students start out taking one side of an argument and, as they worked on their essay, ending up with exactly the opposite argument. So as much as I urge planning, outlines, and clear thesis statements, I also want to encourage students to be changed by the process of writing rather than to be so narrowly focused that they can't see anything beyond their specific parameters.

I't s a paradox, isn't it? Sometimes -- whether in writing or in life -- we need to hold our plans, road maps, and recipes loosely. Sometimes we need to make room to include something that wasn't on the original agenda.

Sometimes we plan the journey; sometimes the journey plans us. 

Friday, May 04, 2018

Five Minute Friday: ADAPT

Today I'm linking up with the Five Minute Friday community, where we write for five minutes on a given prompt. Today's word is ADAPT.

For the last couple of months we have been adapting our daily schedule. Jonathan has been taking the bus to and from school ever since he began high school, and it has been so convenient.

But lately (perhaps because he's going through a teenage phase), Jonathan has gotten very sedentary. He doesn't want to go to the schoolyard to play ball, or to a park for a walk along the shore. He has also gained quite a bit of weight (again, maybe a teenage phase; maybe he's preparing for an upward growth spurt). But we want him to have more exercise, so we've decided that he will take the bus to school in the morning but will walk home from school in the afternoon. It's about a 20-minute walk, so it guarantees that he'll get more exercise in his day.

However, he's not able to walk home alone, which means that Richard or I have to walk there to pick him up and walk home with him. 

This has meant adapting our day to the new routine. If Richard's working or unavailable, I can't just sit at my computer waiting to spy the bus coming at 2:35; instead, I have to be ready to leave home at 2:05 to walk to the school.

Sometimes, to be honest, it's a bit of a drag. I walk regularly for exercise, but I like to do that early in the day -- so if I've already had my "exercise" walk earlier, I don't necessarily feel like another 40-minute walk in the afternoon.  

But there are benefits. Jonathan gets a lot of enjoyment from observing things like seagulls and geese in the sky, shovels and brooms on porches, and yellow school buses all over the place.

Hopefully soon his "inert" phase will pass, and he'll want to get out and do more physical activity. But for now, we adapt.


(Here is Jonathan walking -- though not home from school. 
I wish this was our walk home!)