Author Archives: MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Question: Why must we still talk about race? Answer: Twelve.

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Note: This post was picked up by the Huffington Post and you can also read it there.

I’m reading Ta Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me right now. It’s a dissonant experience because the language in the book is exquisite, and the truth of it is tough and hard.

I’m also reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to northern cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Washington DC in the early 20th century.

I highly recommend both books, especially if you are white. Read them with an open heart. Read them not to refute, but to understand. Read them in the spirit of Brian McLaren’s joke, “Why did Jesus cross the road?” “To get to the other.”

I hear a good bit of defensiveness from many white people when the subject of race comes up. They don’t understand why we are “still” talking about it. If pressed, they will often insist that they are not racist. They treat people equally. Everyone was nice to everyone in their high school. There was no racial tension.

All of those things may be true. But they’re not the point.

Twelve is the point.

I heard Isabel Wilkerson speak last week while I was at the Chautauqua Institution, just a few days before the anniversary of Ferguson. She began her talk by evoking #BlackLivesMatter. And I could hear some hackles rising. Do you know what hackles sound like? They begin as the sound of shifting in seats. Add some clearing of throats as people get ready to rehearse their “post racial” bona fides to anyone who will listen. It was a polite crowd, and I must say, a well-intentioned one, so the hackles simmered down. They sat and listened. And I hope they heard Isabel Wilkerson offer an offhand remark that, for me, shifts everything:

The institution of slavery persisted for twelve generations of African Americans in this country.

I knew it, but I didn’t know it.

Twelve generations.

Those of us who study the Bible know the power of the number twelve. There were twelve tribes of Israel. These tribes were God’s beloved ones. Later Jesus would call twelve disciples to walk with him in faithfulness. A woman reached out to Jesus for healing because she’d been hemorrhaging, her blood spilled upon the earth, for twelve years. And a little girl of twelve was brought to life again when Jesus’ words of liberation and empowerment filled her ears: little girl, GET UP.

For those of us who don’t read the Bible, no matter. Twelve generations is a long time.

Twelve generations of could-have-been.

Twelve generations of doctors and midwives and lawyers and writers, scrubbing floors in the master’s house.

Twelve generations of musicians and architects and sculptors and scholars, picking cotton from dawn until dusk.

And—it must be said, and was said by Isabel Wilkerson—twelve generations of white people who wouldn’t let the doctors heal, wouldn’t let the architects build, wouldn’t let the sculptors create. When you’re keeping a race of people down in the ditch, she said, that means you’re down in the ditch with them. Our history diminished all of us.

That’s why this conversation matters. That’s why we have to talk about it. If you’re not a racist, congratulations. I’m not going to argue with you, because it’s not the point.

Twelve is the point. Twelve is the point.

How long do you think it should take to dismantle twelve generations of racial oppression, not to mention Reconstruction, Jim Crow and its aftermath? Should we be “over it” by now? Ask my friend, who couldn’t get a job interview until she removed her “black-sounding” name from her resume, whether it’s over. Ask the black men in our communities, who are seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire, whether it’s over.

My mother has an expression, “When it’s on you, it’s on you.” I didn’t ask for it to be on me—the privilege that comes from being white—but it’s on me. And I’m fooling only myself if I try and insist otherwise, just because we passed the Civil Rights Act and elected a black President.

It’s not about guilt. Guilt is a distraction, a side show, a dead end. My people did not own slaves. But the state of my birth fought under the Confederate flag. And contrary to popular belief, my white children will be more likely to receive a college scholarship than their friends who are people of color.

When it’s on you, it’s on you. And now it’s on all of us to talk about it—and also to listen.

~

During World War I there was a great migration north… painting by Jacob Lawrence.

All the World’s a Stage

Who lives like this?

Who lives like this?

As many of you know, we’re preparing to move a few weeks from now. We’re moving within the DC area, closer to my husband’s job. Then we have to sell our current house. Thankfully we’ve arranged things so we can move out before that happens—it needs some work to get it ready to go on the market.

We haven’t bought or sold a house since 2003. Sometime during those intervening twelve years, staging became a much bigger deal.

Back then, I remember our real estate agent giving us a few tips on making the house look good. Did you know there’s a proper ratio for how much dining room chairs should stick out from under the table? That sort of thing. I also remember walking into some homes that looked showroom quality, even though it was clear people were living there. I wondered what their secret was. I wondered where their clutter was. Now I know: staging.

These days, the real estate agent will hire a stager to take a close look at the home and put together a plan. The goal is to maximize bang for your buck, so the stager will rank and prioritize the tasks. Kitchens are important. So’s the placement of furniture. We’ll be leaving some pieces behind once we move, to help people visualize the space as well as possible.

Colors are also a big deal. Our stager gave us specific Pantone numbers to paint various rooms. Which suits us fine, frankly. Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it.

While we were going around looking at houses, my husband remarked how similar staging is to curating an online persona on social media. You can’t change the raw materials you have to work with. Your life is your life; your house is your house. But you go through a careful process of putting your best foot forward. We all do it to some extent, though some are more meticulous about it than others.

The problem comes when we compare our unstaged life to everyone else’s staged life and feel inadequate for falling short.

I was nervous about the staging thing at first. It’s hard not to feel judged for your design choices, and I pictured a snooty woman wrinkling her nose as she beheld our aging IKEA furniture. But our stager was great. And she won me over when she said, “You know… my house looks like a regular house—a house people actually live in. When I walk into a home that doesn’t need staging, I think ‘these people need therapy.'”

It’s a bit of a game. And naming that is important and healing.

I’m glad for the stager. We’ve made good memories in our home. That means displaying it in the best possible light so other people will see the potential for their own memories to be housed there.

This summer, like many of you I’m sure, I’ve seen friends post their vacation photos to Facebook. In the past, those pictures used to get me down sometimes. The beaches were so pristine, you see. The kids, so adorable, clutching their ice cream cones, barefoot in the perfect slanting light of dusk.

This summer I haven’t felt that way. This summer I have welcomed every photo, even living vicariously through them. A friend and I were laughing that I wasn’t bothered by the photos because I’m not working right now! That’s part of it, I’m sure (and I am working, though not full time and not in the church). But also, I recognize the rules of the game. Facebook is not reality. I sincerely hope my friends had great vacations this summer, but I also see the perfect photos for what they are—a representation of life that’s not entirely accurate.

Like my mama used to say, don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. Studies have shown that people can be dragged down by other people’s perfectly curated online personas. But I wonder if that will change as we “grow up” with this technology. I wonder if we are becoming more savvy about social media and the rules of the game. What do you think?

Lessons on Life and Improv from The Martian

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I just finished the audiobook of Andy Weir’s The Martian. I’d been looking for a book I could listen to while doing home stuff in preparation for the move, and this fit the bill perfectly. It’s an exciting and fascinating story of an astronaut who accidentally gets stranded on Mars after a tragic accident. His crew evacuates the planet after presuming him dead. We see Mark Watney’s struggle to survive, but also the incredible effort put forth by NASA scientists and his fellow crew members to save him—once they realize he’s alive, which takes a while. In addition to being very suspenseful, it’s quite poignant.

It’s also full of lessons about the power of improvisation as an orientation, and a set of tools for surviving when The Plan gets shot to hell. Watney’s situation is an extreme one, to be sure. But sooner or later, every last one of us is going to get hit with the confusion and desolation that comes when the life we thought we’d live, the existence we’d planned for, goes up in smoke. What then?

We often think about improv as being about performance or entertainment, but improv is applicable to a number of disciplines, including engineering. I explored some of this after watching a NOVA episode about the Hubble Space Telescope. You can read my thoughts in the post, Solving the “Trouble with Hubble”.

The improvisational elements in The Martian center around the practicalities of survival—how to grow food on a desolate planet, how to communicate with Earth. But they also deal with the psychological work of moving forward without losing hope. Here are a few thoughts that came to me while listening to the book. [Very light on the spoilers here.]

Improvising isn’t the same as winging it. Watney’s tale of survival is a feat of ingenuity and imagination—rationing, repurposing, and recalculating. We think sometimes that improv is this free-form practice that emerges out of nothing. But Watney had trained. He had prepared for scenarios 1 through 1000, so when scenario 2,253 happened, he had some tools at his disposal.

When I was preparing to have a baby, my childbirth educator encouraged us to “worry” about the various scary scenarios. Instead of trying to pacify us with “it’ll be OK” platitudes, she said, “OK, what if you do need an emergency C-section? What happens then? What if your child has to go to the NICU? How will you handle that? What resources do you need, what questions do you have?” And then she got us the information we needed.

There was no way to think through every worst-case scenario in my head—yes, I’m pretty creative, but life is even stranger than the catastrophes I can dream up. But by thinking through lots of possible outcomes, I had the confidence to be able to handle whatever might happen.

The truth is, we are not in control of our lives. Things happen. Plans fall through. People get sick. Marriages end. Loved ones die. Our call is to use the resources we have to put together a life in the wake of these things—maybe not the life we had hoped for, but a good life, a life with dignity, fashioned out of whatever’s on hand.

Let yourself freak out. Then move on. There are numerous instances in the book of Watney confronting some bleak new situation and falling into despair. He makes a mistake that could be potentially fatal to him. He makes two steps forward one day and three steps back the next. In each instance, he lets himself feel those things. Then he takes a deep breath, gets up, and does what’s in his power to do.

Many of us get stuck in the freakout and never move to action. Others of us move straight to action without letting the full weight of what’s going on hit us. Watney models a good balance. As Admiral James Stockdale has said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–which you can never afford to lose–with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Focus on the next thing. Watney comes to consciousness after the accident and realizes he’s completely alone and 140 million miles from home. He has no clue how to contact Earth or his crew, how to even think about rescue. But none of that matters at that moment, because task #1 is figuring out what he’s going to eat. So he focuses on growing food. This struck me as very wise. The novelist EL Doctorow died recently, and I’m forever grateful for his wisdom: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Whether you’re building a novel or an improv scene or a life, you don’t need to know how it’s all going to turn out. Which is good, because you can’t know. But by taking the next step, you will get there.

Use it all up. [minor spoilers here] Watney spends much of his time in a temporary habitat, the HAB, and at the end, he must leave it to make a long journey in a rover. He’s jury-rigged the rover in all kinds of crazy ways using stuff from the HAB, and when he turns around to take one last look at it, he sees it as the decimated shell that it is. He’s picked it clean, left nothing behind that could be potentially useful. Which means there’s no turning back.

This is a perfect embodiment of Annie Dillard’s wisdom about writing and life: “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place… give it, give it all, give it now… Something more will arise for later, something better.”

In my limited experience with improv, I’ve found it to be a very now-focused practice. If you have an idea, use it, don’t save it. If you have an impulse to act, do it. I guess there are some of you out there who come by this naturally and maybe need to learn to restrain yourselves more. But I bet many readers of this blog are like me, wanting to keep a little bit of life in reserve because it makes us feel safe. That hoarding comes at a cost.

Life is relentless. I mean this in multiple senses of the word. Watney’s situation was unrelenting, requiring constant activity—planning, executing, testing, retrying. He had to be a botanist, a mechanic, a scientist a carpenter. He had to be vigilant against an alien planet that seemed determined to kill him. He could not stop.

But I also mean that the impulse toward life is very strong. The basic rule of improv is yes-and—to accept what the world offers and build on it. Even when he has no idea how he could possibly be rescued, Watney is determined to LIVE for as long as he can.

One of the most poignant parts of the book is when Watney talks about taking samples of Mars rocks and soil, labeling them, and storing them where he hopes they’ll be found someday.

Here’s a man who knows his chances of personal survival are slim. But he’s part of something beyond him. And he trusts and hopes that someday, people will return to Mars. It’s his duty and his honor to be a a part of that relentless lurch into the future, to the extent that he can.

Did you read The Martian? What lessons did you learn from it?

~

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Tips for the Work-at-Home Crowd, and Other Monkey-Mind Procrastinators

Tips for the Work-at-Home Crowd and Other Monkey-Minded ProcrastinatorsRecently a friend asked for advice on staying focused and organized while working from home. I’ve been doing that for several months now and have some practices that work well for me. If you work from home, or if you work for yourself and find it hard to stay motivated, or if you suffer from monkey mind/lack of focus, perhaps some of these things will help.

A caveat. I like to joke that every parenting book should contain the words “My Kid” somewhere in the title.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting… My Kid.
Parenting My Kid with Love and Logic.
Etc.

What works for one person doesn’t work for another, and this list is not one size fits all. That said… this stuff works for me and maybe it will for you too.

I also accidentally stood someone up on a phone call this morning. So clearly I have room for improvement.

Anyway:

It starts with a comprehensive to-do list. The to-do list is the backbone of getting stuff done. Notice I say “a” to-do list. If you’re using your email as an adjunct to-do list, you’re bound to miss stuff. (Plus you’re forever combing through your inbox, leading to distraction and inefficiency.) Get all of your items into one place. I use Things from Cultured Code and it’s simple and clean and functional and let you organize by project. But there are probably shinier new tools out there. And a paper to-do list gets the job done fine too.

But the to-do list is useless by itself. To-do items must connect with your calendar or they will sit on that list, stubborn, refusing to budge, forever. So each evening I look at the next day’s scheduled items in Google Calendar, then I look at the to-do items I want/need to tackle, and I merge them into a single written document. I use a small sheet of paper—the size of a grocery list, something I can carry in my pocket or purse so I don’t need to have my phone or laptop handy—and write out an agenda. For each block of time I will list an appointment or a task.

Think in terms of 90-minute blocks. I recently heard a podcast lifting up 90 minutes as the magic unit of time in terms of productivity. That’s about how long we can focus on a task without needing a hard reset. Since then I’ve been trying to think in these terms. I used to covet 3-4 hour blocks for writing, and I’d smoosh the rest of my life together to give myself those long expanses of time. I no longer do that. If I have the luxury of 3-4 hours, I still break it up into 90 minute chunks.

Break your time blocks into Pomodoros. Sometimes 90 minutes is too long to focus on one thing without getting distracted. The task is hard or unpleasant, or you feel scattered in your thinking. I love the Pomodoro Technique, in which you work for X amount of time and reward yourself with a short break. I like 12 minutes of work, 3 minutes of break. Pomodoros trick your brain by breaking a large scary task into small pieces. You can do anything for 12 minutes, can’t you? And I often find by the fourth or fifth Pomodoro I’m so immersed in the task, I bag the break when it comes.

And yes, there’s an app for that.

Celebrate what you accomplished–specifically. I like the sheet of paper for the feeling of crossing stuff off. But sometimes interruptions rule the day, or your energy takes you in a different direction than you’d planned, and it’s discouraging to look at the day’s agenda and see how many things did NOT get crossed off. To combat that discouraging feeling, at the end of the day I will turn that piece of paper over and make a list of things I DID do, even if they were things I hadn’t planned to do. (I think there’s a spiritual practice in there somewhere—one side, your best intentions; on the other side, the reality. Then you recycle the piece of paper and start anew.)

Think energy management as much as time management. This is an idea I got from Dan Blank. You only have so much control over your time. But you have more control over what you give your energy to (although that too is often dependent on other people). And when you’re energized by certain kinds of tasks, you can pursue them all day without feeling as drained–giving you some fuel in the tank for stuff you aren’t as jazzed about. For example, today I was meeting with several moving companies. I knew that process would drain me (in addition to taking time) so I decided to keep the rest of my goals modest. So instead of tackling that article I needed to write from scratch, I decided to do some editing instead. I’ll tackle the article another time. And I know it won’t fall through the cracks because I:

Do a weekly review and schedule blocks. Because I do both freelance writing and author-based projects, it has helped me to take 20 minutes every Friday to look at the following week’s appointments and to-do items. Then I will designate certain days as “freelance days” and others as writing/speaking work days. Do they often bleed into one another? Do I find myself swapping and adjusting? All the time. But even if your intentions get shot to pieces, I find this weekly big-picture time to be essential.

Answer yesterday’s email today. I know lots of people who claim to check email just once or twice a day. Frankly I think they’re lying. Or they have way more self-control than I do. I haven’t been able to kick the habit of checking email frequently, and honestly, I’m tired of expending the will power necessary to try and pull it off; it can be put to better use, like keeping me away from the canned frosting aisle of the grocery store. Instead, I check email at idle moments throughout the day and answer truly urgent ones then and there. Everything else gets a response the next day. I answer them all at once, which is more efficient than working in dribs and drabs all day long.

I can hear the protests from here. Yes, you are so very indispensable, or your industry is so fast-paced that it would never, ever work. OK fine. But some of you can do this. And believe it or not, you can train people to expect an answer the next business day. If it really can’t wait, they can use that old-fangled thing called the phone.

Put together an ad hoc staff. One of the hard things about working for yourself is the lack of accountability. Especially as writers. Nobody’s clamoring for that article I want to pitch to a magazine (though I hope they’ll love it once I do!). So find a writing group, or a bunch of fellow entrepreneurs, or whatever you need for your situation, and set up some accountability measures. I’ve got a small group of writers and we share weekly goals on Facebook. It’s just enough structure so I feel like I’m not out there all by myself.

Well, there you have it. My best wisdom (largely gleaned from others) that helps me get stuff done. What helps you? Would love to hear.

~

 photo credit: ABC-Analyse via photopin (license)