The following is an excerpt from Educated by Tara Westover, one of my favorite books from 2019. This passage made me consider the source of fear and if fear serves me.
Finally, the staircase opened onto the roof, which was heavily slanted, an inverted V enclosed by stone parapets. The wind was gusting, rolling clouds across the sky; the view was spectacular, the city miniaturized, utterly dwarfed by the chapel. I forgot myself and climbed the slope, then walked along the ridge, letting the wind take me as I stared out at the expanse of crooked streets and stone courtyards.
“You’re not afraid of falling,” a voice said. I turned. It was Dr. Kerry. He had followed me, but he seemed unsteady on his feet, nearly pitching with every rush of wind.
“We can go down,” I said. I ran down the ridge to the flat walkway near the buttress. Again Dr. Kerry followed but his steps were strange. Rather than walk facing forward, he rotated his body and moved sideways, like a crab. The wind continued its attack. I offered him an arm for the last few steps, so unsteady did he seem, and he took it.
“I meant it as an observation,” he said when we’d made it down. “Here you stand, upright, hands in your pockets.” He gestured toward the other students. “See how they hunch? How they cling to the wall?”
He was right. A few were venturing onto the ridge but they did so cautiously, taking the same ungainly side steps Dr. Kerry had, tipping and swaying in the wind; everyone else was holding tightly to the stone parapet, knees bent, backs arched, as if unsure whether to walk or crawl.
“I’ve roofed my share of hay sheds,” I said finally.
“So your legs are stronger? Is that why you can stand in this wind?”
I had to think before I could answer. “I can stand in this wind, because I’m not trying to stand in it,” I said. “The wind is just wind. You could withstand these gusts on the ground, so you can withstand them in the air. There is no difference. Except the difference you make in your head.”
He stared at me blankly. He hadn’t understood.
“I’m just standing,” I said. “You are all trying to compensate, to get your bodies lower because the height scares you. But the crouching and the sidestepping are not natural. You’ve made yourselves vulnerable. If you could just control your panic, this wind would be nothing.”
“The way it is nothing to you,” he said.
Two lines in this passage stand out for me – “The wind is just wind,” and “There is no difference. Except the difference you make in your head.” When I read this a year ago, I stopped to read it over a few times. These words caused me to consider the ways in which I work myself up or let fear and doubt creep in, over things that are either not in my control or smaller than I have let them appear in my mind. I consider a situation to be a stumbling block, when if I would look at it for what it is I would see it as more of distraction than any real obstacle.
It is easy to get so caught up in the swirl of perceived problems that I can miss the solution. There is usually a way through, but first I need to settle myself. Sometimes the wind is just wind.
This must be the season for guest posts for me! Last week, I wrote a post for Christi Craig, Publisher at Hidden Timber Books. My relationship with Hidden Timber Books goes back a few years, they published one of my essays and they are very supportive of writers, those they have published and many others. The essay talks about why writing is important to me and can be found here.
Recently, I have been so busy with work and other obligations that it would be easy to let my writing take a back seat to other demands. But I realized that writing is essential for my wellbeing and creativity, so even if I only have a half hour, I make time to write. I hope you are also doing something to nourish your spirit during these times.
I have a checklist that I’m trying to adhere to in this time of uncertainty, maybe some of my tips will help you.
My COVID-19 staying at home checklist:
- In the morning – wake up, give thanks
- Spend a little time being quiet – devotions, reading, prayer
- Move a little – I can stretch, do Pilates, even lift weights at home. I don’t need a gym to move.
- Check on family and friends, reach out – a note, text, calls later in the day
- Work – I’m most effective in the morning so I tackle the more challenging tasks first.
- Check reliable media to see if there is a useful update on the virus. I need to be informed, but not overwhelmed.
- Write or do research for my writing
- In the evening – Wind down, perhaps read, get several hours of sleep so I can do it again the next day
During the day, I try to eat simple, healthy meals (soups are filling and making them is relaxing for me) and drink plenty of water. I also am intentional about stopping during the day to check in on how I’m feeling—restless, tired, energetic, stressed, calm, grateful, etc. I realized getting a good night’s sleep was essential to being ready to go in the morning, and sleep is also important for a strong immune system and overall health. I hope to incorporate more time outdoors now that the weather is getting warmer, even if it means climbing the small hill in the backyard.
Stay safe, take care of your health. What are you doing to stay healthy in these stressful times?
My essay, I Can Show You Better Than I Can Tell You, appeared on the Brevity blog a few days ago and I wanted to share it with you. If you love creative nonfiction like I do, this blog, which has more than 46,000 readers, is one you should take a look at.
By Ramona M. Payne
My mother learned at an early age how to take care of herself. Her father died when she was six and life for her, her sister, and their mother was hard. I imagine that because her life was shaken by death and financial struggle, she sometimes had to go along with […]
Favorite Books from 2019
My list may not be the same as the New York Times bestseller list or another “best books of 2019” list, but here are some of my favorites reads from the past year. I read about twice as much nonfiction as fiction, but there are some great novels in this group.
- Becoming by Michelle Obama
- Thick and Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom
- The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
- The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
- All the Colors We Will See by Patrice Gopo
- Educated by Tara Westover
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
- Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
- The Neapolitan Quartet (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child) by Elena Ferrante
- In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
- Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
My goal for 2020 is to keep up the pace of about one book per week, although some take longer, others, less time to read. I typically stay with one book at a time and I look forward to settling in on a Sunday and starting new book. Many readers like to use audible and e-books, but I prefer the actual book, for the experience and feel of the book, so I can make my own notes (I know e-readers let you do this), because I want to take my time with the story, trying to figure out structure and pacing and how an author keeps me turning the page. I also found that I read more since I started setting an annual goal, because I make time to read rather than waiting to have time.
How do you decide what to read—booklists, recommendations from friends and other readers, reviews, book club? I’d love to hear how readers choose their books.
Last year, while reading an international magazine called flow, I came across a word that made me sit up and pay attention. The word is Ubuntu, a Zulu and Xhosa word that means our common humanity.
Intrigued, I decided to learn more about the African philosophy of Ubuntu, reading books and articles, including The Lessons of Ubuntu by Mark Mathabane, who also wrote the memoir Kaffir Boy. Ubuntu encompasses ideas such as respect, caring about each other, empathy, spirituality, and that we are inextricably connected to each other, even when we do not recognize it. It means that I am a person because of other people, or as they say in South Africa, “I am, because of you.”
It is a balancing act—recognizing that individuals have unique gifts to offer the group or humanity, while believing no one individual is more important than the group. This kind of balance requires careful thought, especially in a culture that celebrates individual accomplishment.
At Nelson Mandela’s funeral, President Barack Obama spoke of Ubuntu as Mandela’s gift, “his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye, that there is a oneness to humanity that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others and caring for those around us…”
During 2019, I sought to learn more about what Ubuntu is, and began to see the world and its troubles in a new and more hopeful way. In 2020, I hope to go more deeply into both an understanding and practice of Ubuntu, trying to see the ways we are linked despite the differences that keep us apart.
The last two months have been busy—I launched my workshop series, Write.Pause.Reflect, in October and have been planning and delivering workshops, connecting with friends and meeting new people who are interested in reflective writing.
Write.Pause.Reflect is for anyone who is interested in using writing as a tool for managing stress, situations that cause you to worry, thoughts that keep creeping up, or issues of concern. Expressive writing, pioneered by James Pennebaker Ph.D., uses writing as a way to improve health, including mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing. In April I experienced and learned the techniques, and after my first day I knew this was a method I wanted to share with others.
What is it?
Reflective writing uses prompts and reflection on the prompts to move towards better health. In the workshops, we pause to examine the writing and our thoughts about it and consider its impact. This type of writing is different from a diary or most people’s ideas about journaling; it asks you to consider the possibility of reframing the stories we hold about our lives.
Do I have to consider myself a writer?
It is not designed solely for writers, and no, you do not have to share your work; the writing is personal.
Each workshop has been engaging and the feedback very positive. Participants are thoughtful, willing to do the writing, and respectful of each other. I continue to learn more about this process and look forward to conducting more of these workshops in 2020. Feel free to contact me if you have questions or you can comment below.
You need to know two things about me. Number one, I am a firstborn in a family with four younger brothers. Number two, until I got almost to high school I usually thought I had the right answer. About everything. I remember the first time I did not have an answer to a question. One summer, I went to vacation bible school at St. John A.M.E. Zion Church with one of my brothers. I have mostly good memories of the experience, I may have even known some of the children who were there from my first two years of grade school at Rockdale Elementary. By that summer, I had spent a few years at Annunciation, a Catholic school, where I did well in school, all As except for one in handwriting, which although it broke my streak, I did not fret because after all, it was just handwriting. Continue reading