Tomorrow, I turn 55. I can’t believe it’s been five years since I started my “50 thought on turning 50” blog post series, in which I noted that I might be 60 by the time I actually finish the list. (My Ancestry DNA test came back and said I’m a hearty mix of Irish, Italian, and Procrastinator.)
I don’t mind aging. For me, the hardest part of having a birthday: the presents.
I’ve been told I’m a hard person to buy presents for because I don’t like to get presents. I’m swimming in stuff over here and despite a lot of effort to manage the clutter, it’s a never ending battle. Giving me gifts or knickknacks or books just adds to the stress. I change my mind a lot about where I shop, eat, or get my hair done, so people often spend money on gift certificates I’ll never use.
I know, I know. I sound ungrateful, but I’m really not. I appreciate that people care about me and want to show it on my birthday. And honestly, I’m not opposed to going out to dinner or receiving small gifts of things I really need or want (although right now, I don’t need or want much of anything).
So for those who can’t resist my “please don’t give me anything” plea, here is a list of ideas of things you can do for my birthday.
As much as I hate to admit it, I like Facebook quizzes. I know they’re created so Facebook and other companies can collect information from users, but I’m still always amazed when they give me results as if they actually have tabulated my answers and analyzed them.
Theoretically, anyway. What I really did was start researching the next book idea. Research isn’t writing. As my publisher well knows.
But back to the quiz. It’s a simple quiz, just a few questions about how you respond to some general situations, like making a New Year’s resolution or dealing with expectations. When I got my results, I wasn’t surprised: I’m a Questioner.
Anyone who knows me will tell you I ask a lot of questions. (Ask my friend Laura.) I over research and over analyze. I’ll ask questions about your questions and then go research the answers. So what did surprise me was that, according to the quiz, Questioners “resist outer expectations” and “meet inner expectations”.
I often do reject other people’s expectations of me. I wouldn’t say that’s been a lifelong thing; only in the past maybe 10 or 15 years have I really been able to stand up to people who boss me around, and to stop living other people’s expectations of me and living my own.
Except that in that rejection of other people’s expectations, I haven’t really been able to hold onto my own expectations of myself. I don’t feel like I ever live up to my own expections.
I let myself down. A lot.
But then I mused a bit on the quiz’s explanation:
“Questioners question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified, so in effect, they meet only inner expectations. Once Questioners believe that a particular habit is worthwhile, they’ll stick to it—but only if they’re satisfied about the habit’s soundness and usefulness. They resist anything arbitrary or ineffective; they accept direction only from people they respect. Questioners may exhaust themselves (and other people) with their relentless questioning, and they sometimes find it hard to act without perfect information. If you’re thinking, ‘Well, right now I question the validity of the Four Tendencies framework, yep, you’re probably a Questioner!”
This is really quite accurate. I don’t just reject what other people want or expect; I do what I think is right and worthwhile and justified and respectful. As for my inner expectations? I do meet them – when I feel they’re justified.
I’m not always a slacker.
In the follow up email – because of course I signed up to get more information – I learned that Questioners are motivated by logic, fairness, and reason. They do exhaustive research and often suffer from paralysis by analysis.
And then a light bulb went off over my head: this is me, and maybe this is why I can’t finish a writing project.
It’s not that I don’t want to or that I’m not willing to do the work. It’s because, if I’m being honest, I don’t feel like anything I write has value, it doesn’t meet my own inner expectations. Outside expectations don’t matter – reader feedback or a deadline or a paycheck or even a signed book contract. What matters is what I’m thinking inside, what I’m expecting from myself: do I feel it’s quality work? Is it an idea that will bring value to other people’s lives? Is it necessary, in a world being bombarded with information, to add my creative voice to the clamor? Am I doing the best job I can do?
Which I know isn’t sound reasoning. I know some of my writing is good – no, great. So it’s not like I never like my own work. I just balance what I offer with what the world needs and often find myself wanting.
Of course, if I think about it, if I really believe that my creative work has no value, then am I questioning the integrity of the publications that pay me? These aren’t stupid people. They’re not giving me money to be charitable. I clearly write something they need. My publishers put out some quality stuff. They’re also dear, dear friends. But they’re not having me write a book to do me some kind of favor. I respect these people…don’t I? Maybe in not believing in their belief of me, I’m actually not respecting them?
I think it’s what Rubin means when she writes in the more detailed tendency report:
“Questioners are motivated by sound reasons—or at least what they believe to be sound reasons. In fact, to others, Questioners can sometimes seem like crackpots, because they may reject expert opinion in favor of their own conclusions.”
All of this shouldn’t surprise you. The fact that I’ve done an entire blog post based on a few lines of feedback from a Facebook quiz should give you all the proof you need that I’m a crackpot.
So what do I need to do? Stop questioning myself. Or should I? Isn’t research good? Isn’t learning more better than not know learning more?
What I really need to do is get the book and see what Rubin suggests for breaking bad habits and starting good ones. You know, do more research.
This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. It won’t surprise you that it’s been two years since I started this project and I’m just a little more than halfway. I told you when I first posted it might take me until I’m 60 to finish. Now I know why. You can read more posts here.
I often read Young Adult books, because I like to see how authors are dealing with difficult topics in a way that young people can understand them.
In this election cycle, I’m reminded of the YA novel “Nothing But The Truth”, by Avi. I read it years ago, and have reread it several times, because it’s an excellent portrayal of how what we see on the evening news – or, with the advent of social media, online – is only a snippet of the truth. And how that truth is filtered and distilled down through the eyes of each person involved in the process of telling the story.
Here’s the premise of the “documentary novel”: Phillip Malloy is a ninth grade student. During the morning announcements, the school has a policy that all students must stand and remain silent during the playing of the National Anthem. Phillip, however, happens to be in a homeroom with a teacher who not only tolerates tomfoolery, he joins in it himself. So Phillip talks and does homework while the teacher cracks jokes. But when the school reassigns all students to new homerooms, Phillip finds himself in Mrs. Narwin’s homeroom. She also happens to be Phillip’s English teacher. And Mrs. Narwin takes the rule of silence during the National Anthem very seriously.
Phillip continues to play the class clown and hums along with the National Anthem in his new homeroom. The more Mrs. Narwin asks for silence, the more Phillip acts up, until she sends him to the principal’s office.
What follows next is a domino effect of events: suspension from school, a civil rights lawyer, national news. It’s a game of telephone, with lives and careers at stake.
What’s so brilliant about this book is that it’s told in transcript style, so readers see the actual conversations between teacher and student, parents and child, parents and local politician, politician and local journalist. There are letters from the teacher to her sister, newspaper clippings, memos from the school board to the teachers in the district. It allows the reader to see the motives behind all of the participants: a dedicated teacher who loves her students and doesn’t want this one punished (she just wants him to stop humming during the National Anthem); a student who knows he’s being a smart ass but doesn’t want to get in trouble at home (because there are bigger issues going on here, including parents expectations at odds with a child’s wants and needs); parents and politicians with their own agendas (and not always with the child’s best interests at heart); a school board on the eve of a budget vote (and dollars often take precedence over people); a journalist with her own goals (and an inability to get the facts right); a conservative talk show host charged with stirring up controversy (and ratings).
The reader gets to see how a complex situation gets boiled down to a headline or sound bite, until a teacher is ruined, parents are vindicated, a politician is elected, and a student is left to navigate the turmoil it all leaves behind.
It’s fiction…or is it? The book was published in 1991, but the premise – the way the story is manipulated, the way the public reacts to a news story without knowing any of the real story – happens every hour of every day. And with social media, every second of every minute of every hour.
This short fiction book – you can read it in a few hours – will remind you that behind every headline is a whole story, and behind every story are real people, with real lives, and that what we pass around as truth is really nothing more than rumor.
Go read it. Now. Before you spout off on social media or forward a story you haven’t actually verified or make a judgement based on a three minute news story that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story…and ruin relationships and friendships in the process. It’s an important lesson to learn in this emotionally charged election year.
I warned you that doing a list of 50 things I’ve learned about turning 50 might take 10 years to finish. It’s a year and a half after my big day, and here we are, at #31. Hey, I’m farther along than I thought I’d be. I’m not as big a slacker as I thought! That makes it a fitting time to share a video I saw back in 2010 that resonated with me: Ben Stein, talking about forgiveness.
“You’ll be amazed at how much sunnier and roomier it is in your head and in your heart if you just get rid of everything’s that’s blocking the light,” he says.
He’s right. I remember a Bible study leader talking once about how in Greek word pictures the word forgiveness is an image of the person wronged carrying on their back the person who wronged them. Unforgiveness is futile, and we’re only hurting ourselves. Or maybe a better illustration is a quote that’s been attributed to everyone from Buddha to Anne Lamott: ““Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
As we end 2015 and head into another year, maybe it’s time to clean out our hearts of resentments and anger, and start 2016 with a fresh attitude towards other people. As Stein adds, “I like doing it, and it’s really a gift for me.” And, like Stein, I think it’s time to forgive ourselves – for past sins, for not being kind to ourselves, for not being perfect humans, for shortcomings big or small … like not keeping up with writing projects …
My social media news feeds have been filled lately with rants and lectures and quips and tirades on myriad hot button social and political topics.
I’m all for supporting causes we believe in, but I’m often left wondering how often we hit “share” or “like” on social media and feel like we’ve done some great service to social justice, when in reality all we’ve done is hit “share” or “like” on social media.
I’ve been trying to sort through my thoughts on this when I saw this week’s episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”, and was struck by something guest comedian Trevor Noah said:
“People are now able to protest in their underwear. And that almost defies what protesting should be about. The whole point of a protest is to get up out of your bed, put your clothes on, walk out in to the cold and say, ‘I stand for this. I march for this.’ And now you really don’t have to have that conviction, ‘cuz you’re on the couch, in your underwear, you’re going, ‘You know what? I don’t like it, either.’ Punch in a few characters, and you’re ‘Yeah, yeah, I fought for the cause.’ No. You didn’t.”
For years I’ve struggled with this topic when it comes to church. We talk a lot about loving our neighbor, and we give to charities, and we support missionaries. But until we stand in the streets and publicly speak our mind, or get our hands dirty doing actual work, or sit down face to face with people on the other side of issues and actually inhale each other’s words in conversation, we really can’t say we’ve taken a stand, or fought for a cause, or had a discussion.
It’s easy to hide behind 140 characters and a photoshopped profile photo, easy to take a stand and argue back online when you don’t have to look someone in the eye, hear the quiver in his voice, feel the tension in the air, and be accountable for the words leaving your lips.
The other thing that struck me about this episode was Noah talking about apartheid in South Africa, and what it means to be black, white and colored (yes, those three are all different in South Africa), and growing up with parents who were illegally married (yes, in the 1980s), and what it means to live in a country where free speech was outlawed until the mid 1990s.
Really, watch the entire episode. It’ll give you something to think about.
Someone posed a question on Facebook recently, asking how you know when the story you’re about to tell someone is actually gossip.
Gossip. It’s a topic I’ve actually thought about quite a lot over the years.
I was at a women’s Bible study once, many moons ago. While I had been a Christian for a long time (at least in label if not necessarily in understanding), it was my first Bible study ever, my first women’s event ever, and I was really new at this church. The women broke off into small groups for prayer – another new thing for me – and started going around the table and sharing fairly lengthy stories about people they were requesting prayer for. Details that included at least first names as well as specifics about situations, illnesses, etc.
One women started talking about her baby sitter, requesting prayer for her while revealing where she lived and some specific details about her family. Turns out, I was pretty sure she was talking about a friend of my daughter, and when the story was finished I asked a question about the girl. The woman leading our group turned to me and said, “Joanne! We’re not here to gossip!”
I’m sure I turned 50 shades of red. I didn’t know any of these women, had never been to a Bible study before and was mortified that I’d been found out as an ignorant Christian. This was gossip?
The truth is, I had sat through some very detailed “prayer requests” that, if you really think about it, were just gossip. That they were shared in a Bible study didn’t change that fact. But in my zeal to learn how to be a Christian, I also learned how to share and receive prayer requests.
Not quite two weeks ago, I was on a deadline for my humor column and battling a solid wall known as writer’s block. No amount of thinking, free writing, talking to the dogs or crying got me and farther than a few sentences for the column that was due on April 5th.
Some writers claim that there’s no such thing as writer’s block, preaching that “butt in chair” will get the writing job done. That’s a great start. But when you have to write something coherent, and funny, writer’s block is a real thing.
So there I was, banging my head against the wall trying to finish one of the dozen column ideas I had, when I thought about going on hiatus from the humor column. I’d just signed the contract for my next book – this is a local history book with a focus on Mt. Hope Cemetery – and I was thinking that maybe trying to mix two genres was going to be more difficult than I thought. I can’t just turn on the funny; it’s a lot of work and there’s a lot of mental “funny” that goes on before I sit down to write the column. I’m typically not a great multitasker, creatively speaking. I need to be in research mode full time to get the book done on schedule.
I finally got the column done, sent it to my editor – and that night learned that a humor column I wrote had won a first place Evangelical Press Association Higher Goals Award in the Humorous category. The column? “Insomnia: things that keep me awake at night”, which I wrote during another episode of writer’s block.
A long time ago, in a religiously focused life, I would have taken that as a sign from God that I should not give up writing the column. And in some ways, it was a validation for me to keep writing the column while working on the book. I love writing humor, and knowing that what I write makes readers happy is important to me.
But the history book makes my publisher happy. I mean, he’s really excited about it, so the fact he gave me a contract when I pitched the book was a sign, too, right? Plus, I’m really excited about it; it feels like the right time for a project I’ve been working on for a couple of years. And I think the people I’m writing about who are dead in the graves would be excited about it, if they were able to have an opinion. (And one of them may have an opinion, given something that happened when I was walking around the grave site, talking out loud.)
But then I go back to the humor sign. What if I have writer’s block next month? And the next? What if I should have signed the contract for a different book idea I’d also pitched (which was more humor-focused)? Uh oh, did I make a mistake?
Back when I was looking for God’s direction in literally everything, I saw almost everything as a sign from God. Do this. Don’t do that. It started to feel like the song by Five Man Electric Band:
Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?
It led to a condition I call Paralysis By Analysis. All of these signs got confusing, to the point that I was afraid to make any decision. I mean, I want to do what God wants me to do, right? And if I don’t do what God wants me to do, He gets mad, right? But how was I supposed to know what God wants me to do? So I ended up doing nothing, or at the very least not trying new things or exploring things outside my comfort zone.
As I’ve matured, and especially as I hit my 40s and now 50, I’ve learned that you can read anything as a sign, especially if you’re already inclined to second guess your decision.
So Lesson #27? How do you read the signs? Maybe there aren’t really any signs at all, except the ones we erect ourselves.
How do you know what does God want you to do? I think God wants you to honor him by using your talents, by taking advantage of every moment life gives you, by making other people happy and seeing God in you, in whatever way that is. Do people see joy? Kindness? Integrity? Faith? Humor? Those are the signs we need to be looking for.
Theologically sound? Probably not. But as we all know, I’ve never claimed to be a theologian and my spirituality lately is a little outside the box. I am, after all, the person who walks through cemeteries talking to the people buried there. But do consider this: don’t spend so much time looking for signs that you miss the adventure.
And because I know the song is now stuck in your head, here’s the whole thing.
I remember, many years ago, watching an episode of “Touched By An Angel” in which the angel Monica is counseling a young girl brought up in difficult circumstances who is fearful that she’ll go on to live the same life her parents led. Monica assures the girl that just because her parents before her made bad choices in life, it doesn’t mean she has to follow in their footsteps.
“We are not the sum of our ancestors,” says the soft spoken Monica.
I wrote that quote down (as you know, I’m a quote junkie) and have mused on it often over the years. We are not the sum of our ancestors. Or are we?
I was contacted recently by a new Christian music magazine about maybe doing some writing for them. I admit I was tempted enough to ask for more information. I miss my artist friends. I miss my publicist friends. I miss my fellow music writing friends. I need the money.
Is TobyMac singing about the Illuminati? Who knows. Who cares. Do you like his music? Then listen. If not, then don’t. If listening to a song that may or may not be about the Illuminati is dangerous to your faith, then the problem isn’t TobyMac. The problem is that your beliefs are so shaky that they can be wavered by a guy wearing a t-shirt with an eyeball on it.
I wrote the following post back in 2009 for a website called Wrecked For The Ordinary. I share it as part of my 50 Thoughts On Turning 50 series because I learned a lot of lessons in my years covering Christian music. Mostly that there’s no such thing as Christian music, because music can’t be Christian. It’s music.
Or maybe I’m just an idiot. I certainly heard that often enough.
But what I learned, at least by the time I got to writing the essay that follows, is that my faith is not a commercial product, and when you strip away all of the extraneous bullshit, you get … well, God. Faith. The wonder of Creation. No Jesus fish stickers required.
In the end, I didn’t pursue the offer to write for this new magazine, in no small part because every time I asked what the assignment paid, they avoided the question. That’s because in the Christian genre, writers are often expected to write for free, because, you know, it’s about Jesus and all, and you should just do it for the Lord.
(7/5/15: I honestly don’t remember what this video was, but it’s obviously been taken down. I guess there is some ability to retract what you put out online. Who knew?
It seems like the subject of nakedness keeps baring itself in the news. A few weeks ago I wrote about a contestant on a reality show called “Dating Naked” who was suing the producers and cable channel because an image of her naked crotch was aired without being blurred out.
Yes, women in America now have the right to educate themselves, prosper, and express themselves in ways women 100 years ago could only dream about. But have we taken those rights to such an extreme that we’ve enslaved ourselves to a celebrity driven/sexuality saturated culture?
I bring this up again because I saw a story in today’s entertainment headlines that makes me think yet again that we women have misused our freedom and set women’s rights back a few steps.
This summer, VH1 premiered a series called “Dating Naked”. The premise, according to a press release: “Do you find love easier when you truly have nothing to hide?”
This season a rotating group of frustrated singles answered the show’s challenge to “bare it all” in the quest for love. After embarking on a series of blind dates, twelve people currently consider themselves “in a relationship” with someone they met on the show … Filmed in a remote exotic locale, each close-ended episode follows a man and a woman both going on three naked dates, including two with other suitors and one with each other.
It is an interesting premise, to consider what would happen if two people were left to woo each other without the material trappings of technology and social conventions. But when you take away the clothing? There are going to be problems.
(June 6, 2020: Don’t miss the brief update at the end of this post.)
For my 50th birthday, I wanted to do something really fun but different than the standard night out with girlfriends or surprise party. So I invited all of my friends to join me at a free improv workshop. I’ve never done improv, but it sounded like a fun way to celebrate turning half a century.
If you don’t know what improv is, think “Whose Line Is It Anyway”, seemingly spontaneous silliness and frivolity, with lots of laughter. When I threw out the idea, several people said they’d like to join me. But when the time came to actually sign up for the free workshop, everyone bailed.
The general excuse was “I’m too afraid to …” Get on stage. Speak in front of people. Look stupid. Act stupid. Say something stupid. Be judged for being stupid.
Pick a fear, or borrow one of mine. I have a long list from which to choose.
When I was younger, I loved female comedians and actresses like Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Marlo Thomas, and of course, Carol Burnett. In fact, when I was younger, I wanted to grow up to be Carol Burnett.
Not be like her. Be her. She was skinny (like me) and had a short haircut (like me, although I doubt her mother forced the hairdresser to give her that super short pixie so she could “get her money’s worth” at the salon).
But more importantly, Carol Burnett had something I desperately wanted: beauty. To me, she was beautiful not only because she had a pretty face but because she was funny. And that beauty made her fearless. Which made her more beautiful.
Maybe it was her ability to step into any character role and make people laugh, whether she was Eunice arguing with Mama or Scarlett O’Hara making a ball gown from velvet curtains. Whatever it is, I wanted it. One year, for Halloween, I even dressed up like the washer woman character that opened her show, complete with my dad’s giant work boots and a bucket full of “suds” my mom made by cutting up sponges.
As we all know, who we want to be and who we are frequently are at odds, and as I grew up my fears generally dictated my life. Fear of being judged, fear of being alone, fear of looking stupid. Where once the seeds of laughter and humor had been sown in my soul, soon the weeds of fear, judgment, and bitterness choked everything positive before it had an opportunity to sprout.
It’s not that I never had fun; I just never let the fun dominate my life. Fear ruled with an iron fist.
So when everyone backed out of the free improv workshop, I went alone. I had no idea what to expect, who would be there, or what I’d be doing with these total strangers. Just going to the class was, at least for me, an adventure far outside my comfort zone.
This post originally appeared in 2013 on my Heavenly Creatures blog at Patheos.com. I generally write about animals and faith and God on that blog, but when offered the opportunity to read and write about this book for a Patheos roundtable, I jumped at the chance. Turns out it wasn’t only a good read; it profoundly changed the way I view myself, making it a must to include in my “5o thoughts on turning 50”.
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I’m an introvert. When I said it to friends a few times over the last couple of weeks, I’ve gotten responses like, “You? You’re so talkative” or “I remember you as so outgoing” but almost always, “You’re not an introvert.”
Really? How would you know?
You probably base your idea of who I am on what you see on the outside, without knowing what’s going on inside of me most of the time. Sure, I can put together a party and play the happy hostess. But inside, I’m usually freaking out, because I have a difficult time talking to lots of people at once. You see me as talkative because I try to go out into social situations only when I’ve built up enough social energy to carry on a conversation; you don’t see me in my alone times, just me and the dogs, walking in the cemetery and recharging my batteries.
I can talk at length, and even in front of a crowd, about a topic dear to my heart. But it’s impossible for me to speak when I don’t believe what I’m saying. Want to talk about human trafficking or positive dog training methods? I’m all about it. Which girl should get a rose on “The Bachelor”? I’m out – or rather, I end up musing about why women would value themselves so little that they’d compete for some guy on a game show and throw their emotions around so trivially; usually everyone else wants to talk about which girl is the biggest bitch.
I’m always asking questions to strangers, like “why do you believe that” and “how did that make you feel”, surrounding myself with gads of acquaintances but few real friends, avoiding conflict and loud noises (and people who wear copious amounts of perfume or cologne), always aware that there is a social line that, once crossed, can throw me into panic or drain me to the point of physical exhaustion.
I get it. I sound cuckoo. In fact, for years (and years) I thought there was something wrong with me. Let’s face it. In our culture, we revere the outgoing, bold, confident risk takers, those who set goals and go after them with wild abandon. Those of us who spend a lot of time thinking and wondering but not always doing are viewed as weak.
That’s why I was so relieved to read Susan Cain’s “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” The book could have been subtitled “Joanne: An Owner’s Manual.”
For the first time, someone has taken the side of the introvert and shown how important they (we) are in an American culture, dispelling the myth that all introverts are recluses who avoid human interaction or that extrovertism is the ideal. And she uses neuroscience and research to back it all up.
For most of my life, I’ve been consumed with finding my purpose in life. I believe that I’m here for a reason – that God created me for something and that I’m not here by accident. And yet I’ve never really felt like I could put my finger on what that reason and purpose was.
Then a few years ago, I stumbled on a quote by Cardinal John Henry Newman, which reads in part:
“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.”
Religion, faith and spirituality have played a large part in my life – both good and bad. So it only makes sense that I address the issues as I muse on 50 years. There’s no way I can tackle them all in one post so I’ll break them up.
Today? The Bible. Or more specifically, reading the Bible.
A few years ago, author John Marks interviewed me for his book, “Reasons To Believe“. He had introduced himself to me as a former evangelical and he was writing a book about religion and faith. I can’t remember a lot of the questions he asked, because years later I still dwell on the first one: “Do you believe everything in the Bible is true?”
Of course, I told him, but as the words came out of my mouth I felt this check in my gut. Wait, I said. I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it like that.
Turns out that a lot of my answers to his questions were “I don’t know” or “I hadn’t really thought about it.” How he managed to actually find enough to use for the book is amazing.
I met John in 2005; over the next year or so we talked many times but his questions challenged me. So I set out to read the entire Bible, cover to cover, to find out if, in fact, I believed everything in it was true.