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“Be Kind. It Matters.”

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In late December, or maybe mid, I can’t be certain, as my brain was muzzy with caffeine and wine and cries for rest, I stumbled on a signature in a political forum. I see many signatures every day, attached to text messages, e-mails, posts, status updates. I’m a little fascinated by signatures, and what they say about the writer. Is it a song lyric? A bit of a poem? An inspirational quote from a famous author? Does the sender use it to shore up an image? Advertise a company or brand? Are they talking to the reader, or are they a personal reminder to the writer?

This signature was brief, just four words long:

Be Kind. It Matters.

Each word was capitalized, the formality of correctness dispensed with in order to stress the importance of each term. I read it as a challenge. It made an impression on me, so much that I decided to add it to my outgoing emails beginning January first. Could I be kind, knowing that to someone…it might really matter?

We’re a week into the new year. It’s been harder than I ever imagined, to have to face  that signature, clinging as it does to the bottoms of email replies from friends and colleagues.

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“Be Kind.”

…to myself, to people I don’t normally correspond with, to people who have, in the past, hurt my feelings, even when I don’t feel like being kind or nice or think in my own shallow judgement that they (or I) “deserve” it.

“It Matters.”

…because I don’t really “know” anyone’s thoughts or situation, because I don’t know if someone is ill, or depressed, or hurting, because maybe just someone who is a really good person is  having a really bad day.

Sometimes it’s hard to be kind. Even when you know it matters. I wonder how long I’ll be able to leave it as my signature.

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Written by Jen Szymanski

January 8, 2013 at 10:24 am

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Holiday Insanity: The Definition

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I’d like to begin this post with the obvious:

1. Many of us drive ourselves insane over the holidays.

2. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Two aspects of Christmas, came crashing together in ironic juxtaposition yesterday – “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” started on my car’s CD player just as I was punching in my PIN at the Credit Union’s ATM. This event jarred me out of the zombified state I’ve been in since Thanksgiving weekend.

What are we doing?

Everyone takes a different meaning from “the holidays.” Some of us celebrate the birth of Christ; some celebrate a miraculous night where not enough oil became enough; others simply take the time to remember those less fortunate. But there’s a common thread woven through the snowmen, and menorahs, and manger scenes: we are told to “give.”

And we know what giving is “supposed” to mean. And yet we trample each other on Black Friday, and experience a financial holiday hangover when we sit down to pay the bills on that first cold January weekend.

It’s not like we haven’t been told, either. For some fifty years, children have been brought up learning the “true meaning of Christmas” via television specials.

“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. Maybe Christmas, he thought… doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps… means a little bit more!” (1966, How the Grinch Stole Christmas)

“Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’ That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

(A Charlie Brown Christmas, 1965.)

The tiniest tots (eyes all aglow or not) can recite what Christmas is supposed to be about.

Yet we don’t stop.

Some of us do, or try. But what to do when you have family that insist on celebrating a Christmas that rival the Griswold’s, and expects at least a certain degree of reciprocation, suck it up and quote Ellen Griswold?

(“I don’t know what to say, except it’s Christmas and we’re all in misery.”)

Why do we do the same things over and over again? Can we not overcome the basic need to keep up with the rest of the (human) tribe? Or are most of us just going along with the flow, afraid to speak up and say what everyone hopes will be said?

Written by Jen Szymanski

December 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm

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Sensory Overload

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I start my day, every day, by reading. Many days, I make my way over to Andrew Sullivan’s awesome blog, where I find posts on science, politics, world events, the arts. I’m always rewarded with something that fires a few neurons while I sip on a warm cup of caffeine, and wait for its effects to seep into my bloodstream.

This was the first thing I read today: ‘Sensing Too Much.’ It features this video, by Migel Jiron:

 

 

I found it difficult to watch. But it is a brilliant reminder of the things so many of us take for granted.

Written by Jen Szymanski

November 20, 2012 at 11:22 am

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Having Difficulty Writing? Good.

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According to many cognitive scientists, accomplishing a task with little money or resources may be harder, but it also makes us vastly more creative. This article describes some of the products of creative people placed in (sometimes deliberately) difficult situations – the Beatles’ Abbey Road, for example.

Is there something to the “starving artist” stereotype?

Fans of J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series know that she was on government assistance while writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, jotting much of the novel down in coffee shops, finishing it up on a manual typewriter. And then there’s this:

You might have thought any tool which enables a writer to get words on to the page would be an advantage. But there may be a cost to such facility. In an interview with the Paris Review Hughes speculated that when a person puts pen to paper, “you meet the terrible resistance of what happened your first year at it, when you couldn’t write at all”. As the brain attempts to force the unsteady hand to do its bidding, the tension between the two results in a more compressed, psychologically denser expression. Remove that resistance and you are more likely to produce a 70-page ramble.

Rowling’s not the only successful writer to have to overcome obstacles – in this video, Stephen King discusses writing longhand; when Carrie was published, King was working as an over-worked, underpaid english teacher in rural Maine. Rowling and King are just two examples of successful authors who started in imperfect conditions. After some rumination on this theory, I can think of several writers whose work has, in my opinion, suffered after they’ve become famous, though this certainly doesn’t apply to everyone.

Thus the question: do you write better when you have obstacles placed in your way (physical, financial, or otherwise?) Would you ever deliberately make things harder on yourself to improve your writing or other work?

Written by Jen Szymanski

November 14, 2012 at 11:01 am

Drowning, Not Waving

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This will hardly count as a “real” blog entry, but I have a question for anyone who reads this. When you get behind on your blogging, what do you do? I’m not complaining – I’ve been writing for work-related projects. Still, I miss the time spent with my thoughts and the quiet click of the keyboard putting them in black and white.

What do you do when you are too busy to blog? How do you prioritize things? Any advice is welcome!

 

Written by Jen Szymanski

November 1, 2012 at 8:26 am

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Getting “in the zone.”

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Once upon a time, I was a teenage band geek. And I was hardcore, baby. Our band competed on a national level. We had an interstate rival, used to do physical work outs, the whole bit. I learned more life skills in that class than I did in all of my other activities combined – how to be organized, change plans on the fly, be productive in downtime.

Band is also where I learned to focus. I used to plug myself  into my Walkman, and play a cassette full of inspirational music. By the time I got through side A, I’d be so focused on the task at hand that an alien attack wouldn’t break my concentration. It was kind of scary – our bus would transform from a typically loud and obnoxious bunch of teenagers to a silent machine in the space of about twenty minutes.

Time passes, and old habits fall away. But sometimes I find myself back “in the zone” when I am writing. Have you ever written  something, and read it later to find that the words will look strange, foreign, as if someone else wrote them? It’s eerie.

My biggest frustration is that I can no longer seem to control this ability. There are simply days where I have a hard time falling into that writing trance.

Does anyone else do this when they write? If so, how do you get into “the zone?”

Written by Jen Szymanski

September 25, 2012 at 8:45 am

Nightstand Psychology

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My nightstand as it appeared this morning.

“There’s no place for me to put a cup of coffee.”

I opened my eyes to see my husband standing next to the bed, blue spatter mug in hand. I absolutely require caffeine first thing in the morning, so this was a real problem. Glancing over at the nightstand, I could see he was right. My bedside table is in a constant state of disarray. I ended up having my coffee in the kitchen.

My husband and I have a bit of an Felix Ungar/Oscar Madison relationship when it comes to our respective reading habits. He tends to read one book (usually history or other non fiction) straight through, while I have an open book in every room. He chides me for my inability to use a bookmark, harangues me about the state of the spines of my hardbacks. Having read that your stuff can say a lot about your personality,  I wondered what all those books mean to me, and thought I’d give my nightstand library a second look.

I have my constants, the books that never leave my bedside:

The Bible, and an ancient, cracked Book of Common Prayer; Gladys Taber’s Stillmeadow Sampler; a book of Robert Burns’ poetry in dialect.

I have my literary “To Do list,” the books I want to read next:

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Brave Companions.

I volumes of short stories by Stephen King and Alice Munro, for when it’s time for sleep, but I need that little “reading fix” to relax me.

I have the books that evoke childhood memories: My favorite (and recently deceased) aunt’s circa 1940 copy of Alice in Wonderland.

I have my current read, Chocolat.

What does this say about me, this eclectic group of tomes in hard and paperback, old and new, scattered as they are? I’ve thought about it since that first cup of coffee (I’m on my fourth…it’s Friday, no judgement, please,) and I think the answer is: I like to read, nothing more.

What do you think someone would be able to tell about you by just looking at your nightstand or bookshelf?

Written by Jen Szymanski

September 21, 2012 at 9:10 am

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