Olympic mettle

I’ve not always been a fan of the Olympics. Not being particularly athletic or overly interested in sports, they always seemed to be a non-event. That was until, a few years ago, a friend and colleague told me how much the athletes’ dedication, incredibly hard work, and personal sacrifice inspired him and his wife.

And so, I started watching. At first, with disinterest and skepticism. Then, with curiosity. Later with attachment. And now, with awe.

Yes, there are carefully choreographed opening spectacles with parades of athletes bursting with national pride. And there is the generally good-natured rivalry between teammates who cheer each other in nearly selfless joy.

But it’s the stories inside the events that speak to the mettle of which these young athletes are made.

Snowboarder Kevin Pearce and brother David. Click on the picture to watch an NBC story about Kevin and his family.

There’s the story of Joannie Rochette, the Canadian figure skater who lost her mother just two days before her walk onto the ice. Understandably shaken, but undeterred, she won a bronze medal.

And there’s Kwame-Nkrumah Acheampong, the 33-year-old, one-man ski team from Ghana. Nicknamed “snow leopard” because the animal is as uncommon as a skier from Ghana, his skiing career started only five years ago.

And Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, a man who faced down addiction and pain to become the first skier to land “the hurricane,” a wrap of five twists into three somersaults that takes place 50 feet in the air. For Speedy, it was a silver medal.

Most Olympic stories are not just about an athlete. They are the stories of people who, through their own sacrifice and support, make another’s achievements possible. Take Kevin Pearce, whose half-pipe moves are compared to those of fellow snowboarder Shaun White–this Olympic’s gold medal winner. Kevin, who couldn’t compete due to a serious injury he suffered on December 31, 2009, now fiercely struggles to talk again and to regain the use of his limbs. It’s a slow, slow process. But it’s his brother, David, born with Down Syndrome, who has provided an unexpected perspective on Kevin’s recovery. “We learned patience from David,” his mother said, remembering that it took him three years to learn to put on his seatbelt.

For many Olympians, there will be medals. For all, there will be memories deeply etched in Vancouver’s snow.

But for Kevin, brothers David, Andrew and Adam, and parents Pia and Simon, there are no medals, no snow, only love.

And, perhaps that is the best metal of all.

May 3, 2010 UPDATE: Kevin is making a remarkable recovery, has been released from Craig Hospital in Englewood, CO, and awaits the real victory of returning to his home in Norwich, VT. His doctor says he’ll be able to make another return: to snowboarding!

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Of greener grass and the proverbial fence

Winter’s weeks-long grip on the South has relaxed a bit of late. Temperatures, which have barely peaked above the 40s in what seems like forever, have climbed into the 60s much to the delight of children and adults playing in the parks and strolling along walking trails. It won’t be long before tulips push through the soggy ground and the local soccer fields turn green.

For some reason, this change of scenery reminded me of an expression I first heard from my dad when I was probably five years old. We were engaged in one of those “I wish” conversations where you want what you don’t have. After wishing things into the ground for several minutes, he looked at me and said, “Son, you know they always say that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” To me, this confirmed that fences were meant to deprive animals of the good fortune of better grass “over there.” In this case is was in the neighbor’s pasture.

My five-year-old logic said that if you took the fences down, horses and cows wouldn’t have to be jealous of another’s better fortune and could move wherever they perceived the greener grass to be. Admittedly, it wasn’t the most practical of solutions.

Despite my childish logic, his point didn’t escape me. Nor does it today.

But we do seem to live in a world that, just beyond our grasp, is slightly better than the one in our hands. We long for warmer weather in the throes of winter and more moderate temperatures during the summer. Or, we’re on the prowl for better jobs, friends, houses or lovers. And, because greener/better is always “over there,” we never quite find it.

Another take on the greener over there proverb came to me awhile ago as I was waiting for a friend to arrive at her office. As I waited patiently, one of her office mates began describing the strong odor of solvent coming from another office in the building. She complained about the thoughtlessness of the landlord and the lack of ventilation, how she’d had to cancel classes during the week and how miserable the situation made her. Despite my suggestion about not letting this take her joy away, nothing would shake her angry words about the problem in which she seemed firmly anchored.

Largely, her story is the same drama in which, at times, we act. Becoming so enwrapped in a situation, we cannot choose a different scene or better context. We see and experience only the moment in all its horrifitude. (That’s a new word.)

In my own experience, I find it’s difficult to see how stuck we really are. But others often see what we don’t, that we have options, choices and potential. Potential that goes unrealized as we look and relook at the same problem, seeing the same evidence over and over again.

Is there a way out? Almost always. Here are three questions that help:

  • Is there another way to look at this problem/situation/event? Think of it this way: How would someone completely unconnected describe it?
  • Am I letting this define who I am and how I think about myself? It’s a case of choosing a new script or a new role to take on.
  • If I can’t change the whole picture, is there a part I can change?

My dad’s admonition about the grass being greener on the other side is a good reminder that where we are often looks more bleak than where we aren’t. The idea of moving “over there” is, of course, tempting but not always practical.

Yet the grass remains under our feet. How we look at it is largely up to us.

What’s your gift?

Time for a trivia challenge.

Think “1970s.” Down select to “music groups.”

Who comes to mind?

Chicago, the Jackson Five, Earth Wind and Fire?

Excellent choices.

For many, the brother/sister duo of Karen and Richard Carpenter will be on the list. The Carpenters hold the distinction of being one of the best-selling music acts in history with a distinctively soft music style that was a sharp contrast to the loud and wild rock of the decade.

Karen died in 1983 of an eating disorder. She was just 33.

Even the most ardent music critics characterize her voice and the Carpenter style as among the country’s finest. And so would her fans. But, despite wide-spread acclaim for her obvious gift and natural talent, it may be something that, on various levels, she never accepted.

In a recent interview*, brother Richard was asked if Karen understood what a good voice she had. His answer was that both he and Karen realized they could do just about anything musically and that, at some level, she knew about her gift. Yet he said, “I don’t really know.”

And then he added, “You know, being human, we do tend to take things for granted. So, I honestly can’t answer that one. I’ve tried.”

It’s always interesting to me how others see talents in us that we overlook or diminish. Wow, what a wonderful gift they’re giving us.

It’s safe to say that taking our talents for granted and not using them isn’t the best place to be. Neither is being haughtily arrogant. But, if you placed these two approaches on a continuum, being in the middle isn’t necessarily the place to be either.

Perhaps this is another call to be a contribution in the world, being less concerned what that is or how credit is bestowed. Not waiting for all the circumstances to be right and for all the stars to align, but just to be a contribution.

To become carpenters ourselves, building others up and encouraging them.

To sing our song and to help others sing theirs.

*     *     *

[Another post about being a contribution can be found here.]

*Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 25, 2009

Ideas that just “drop in”

Like many people, I’m fascinated by how creative types find their ideas. (Or maybe that should be how creative ideas find people to express them, but that takes us down a totally a different rabbit trail.)

A recent broadcast of Diane Rehm’s popular radio show on NPR shed a little light on the topic. Her guest was Carole King, probably best known as a singer from the 1960s whose distinctive sound and style created the 1971 chart-topping Tapestry album, a record (and now a CD) that remains popular even today.

Despite her acclaim as a performer, in her heart, King is a songwriter, pure and simple. It’s a fact borne out in dozens of her tunes that have been sung by such divergent artists as Aretha Franklin, James Taylor, the Monkeys, and Celine Dion.

King’s lyrics tell stories, and her music—a pop and folk infused mix—brings them to life. One of her best known songs, “You’ve Got A Friend,” is particularly soulful and was popularized by James Taylor in 1971. Listening to the words makes one wonder how the song came about—a question that didn’t escape Rehm who posed it to King during the interview.

“It just ‘dropped in,’ ” King said.

“When I sat down at the piano,” King recalled, “that song just ‘came,’ and I’ve always considered it a gift. And I’m glad it came through me… It has touched a lot of people.”

Others have explained their creative sources using images. Merle Shain, Canadian author and journalist, wrote about it this way in her book, When Lovers Are Friends:

 

Poets talk of “having lines land on them” and claim that what they write is hanging in the air for anyone to reach. When someone asked William Blake where he got his ideas, he said that he stuck his finger through the floor of heaven and pulled them down.

King went on to use the “dropped in” phrase at least twice more. When asked to explain, she likened it to writing a letter, but not knowing exactly what to say. Then, suddenly, you find the words effortlessly coming out of the pen and onto the paper. For her, it happens at the piano—suddenly music just comes out.

Franz Kafka, noted German fiction writer, explained his own down-to-earth approach to writing:

There is no need to leave the house. Stay at your desk and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be perfectly still and alone. The world will unmask itself to you, it can’t do otherwise.

Creativity can be thought of as an intuitive process, nurtured through prayer, contemplation, walks in nature, etc. Sometimes the ideas come as hunches or inklings of something to do. At other times, in the case of Carole King, they come as complete songs or ideas. We do know that the more we act on our intuitive hunches, the stronger and more readily available they become.

For me, it’s a sort of “let go of Jake and just let things be, without judgment or conditions.”

Perhaps it is the rabbit trail we didn’t go down: maybe there are all these ideas just swirling around in the universe—just waiting for someone who is ready to hear them.

Don’t know for sure, but it just might be!

How do you measure a year?

Jonathan Larson’s catchy song “Seasons of Love” poses an interesting question. It’s from the overwhelmingly popular Broadway musical (and movie) Rent in which impoverished friends—young artists and musicians—struggle to survive and create in New York City. In the song, the cast considers how a year is best “measured.” Should it be by days or cups of coffee, they wonder. Or perhaps it should be in inches, miles, laughter or strife. They conclude the best way is in 525,600 minutes. But not just any kind of minutes, but moments of love.

(You can watch a video of the song here.)

Not to get heavy here, but it’s pretty clear that our world needs help. As you think about this year, it’s been one of difficult choices and anger that borders on hatred. But when you think about the new year, it is a collage of choices yet to be made, one after another.

And so, as we close out this year with its own 525,600 moments—98 percent of them already spent—and begin another decade, we do so, one moment at a time.

That presents a powerful opportunity to choose how we’ll live 2010. Will it be by bringing more compassion, care and loving concern to our neighbors and planet? That would be good.

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about. It’s a sort of do less of, do more of, and give to others approach…

  • What if you could eliminate one habit from your life that no longer serves you well. How would that help you grow next year? (For me, being too skeptical or hesitant comes to mind.)
  • What if you could add one thing to your life. How could it improve your well-being and outlook? (More time to grow spiritually probably tops the list in my world.)
  • What could you give to others to make the world a better place? (Being more tolerant and patient fits for me.)

Think about the do less, do more, help others question. Then, begin each day thinking about how you can put each into practice. How about a scorecard to track your progress?

Think of it this way: Any time you do what’s on your list is one less moment of doing the opposite.

Want to join me? It’ll only take a minute.

I mean, it’s not like you don’t have 525,600 of them next year!

You’re more creative than you think!

NOTE: This post also appears on http://www.whencreativityknocks.com.

When a friend threw out the idea of writing about creativity for When Creativity Knocks–the website of a mother and daughter team who share crafting skills–my mind went conveniently blank. That is until I remembered my all-time favorite story about Michelangelo (you know, the painter sculptor, architect, poet, engineer and original Renaissance man). It is said that someone congratulated him on turning a block of stone into a man. Skirting the compliment, he merely said the man was in there all the time and just needed a little help in getting out.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been much good at seeing objects in chunks of marble. Evidently, it’s not one of my “gifts.” Truth is each of us has our own special gifts. One of mine is writing music. People sometimes want to know where the music comes from. Usually, I say that I just sit down at the piano, stop thinking about things, and just listen.

Creative folks listen and observe, often looking for ways to connect seemingly unrelated dots. That’s part of the creative process itself.

Think of it this way: How many ways can you use a paperclip? Once you get past the “holding paper together” answer, the list begins to grow. It can become a device to repair a hem, serve as a hair barrette or unclog an Elmer’s glue bottle. Or, if you’re in the eight grade and combine it with a rubber band, it can help you earn a three-day “vacation” from school. But I digress.

Think of the crafting ideas on the When Creativity Knocks website. Each is the result of using common (and not-so-common) materials in different ways—in many cases, very unintended ways.

Take “All Decks on Hand” for example. It’s a great example of connecting a skateboard with artwork to aid a worthy cause—helping people with autism. Those are certainly unrelated dots, don’t you think? You can watch the video HERE.

Want to be more creative? Start by acknowledging that it’s possible. Then, do your own paperclip exercise by asking yourself: What are ten different things I could do with [fill in your own blank.]

Remember, all ideas in brainstorming are good.

Then, get ready for creativity to knock on your door!

Writing to students

It’s nearly impossible to catch a network newscast of late without hearing a story about people helping people.  Even CNN has added its touch with “CNN Heroes, everyday people changing the world” broadcast Thanksgiving evening. It’s a welcome change from the (unfortunately all-to-common) coverage of violence and hate that, if unchecked in our thinking, can jade and discourage.

Dan Stroup's story of writing birthday letters to his students was shown on the Today Show. You can watch the segment by clicking on the photo above.

A particular story caught my attention this morning—the account of a teacher who, for the past 30 years, has sent handwritten letters to his students on their birthdays. You can watch the video HERE.

The ritual takes place every night in the living room of Dan Stroup, teacher of Bible studies at Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis. Stroup, with an uncanny memory of his eighth-grade pupils, reflects on their time in class and poses questions about their lives today. Every note is closed with a Bible verse, written in red, at the bottom of the page.

He takes the job (he wouldn’t call it that) seriously and hopes that each letter brings encouragement and serves as a reminder that he remembers them.  “I don’t know who is going to need what and on what day, and I don’t know how God is going to use this,” he says.  “I want to make sure that I don’t drop the ball. Maybe this letter today is exactly what that person is going to need.”

Sometimes we don’t know the words that others need or how, if spoken, the words will fall on their ears. Maybe, if we listen, they’ll come to us. And if Stroup’s 30-year labor of love holds a lesson, it could be that his yearly act of 2500 individual letters will nurture each student. One by one.

“I will listen…”