authors, Books, Careers, Goals, Life, life hacks, self-help

Self-help yourself

IMG_20170905_122356In Bridget Jones’ Diary, Bridget wonders why her parents and their generation seem to have it all together. She wonders why they don’t seem to suffer the angst and worry of herself and her friends. Maybe, she ponders, maybe this happens because they didn’t and don’t read self-help books. Indeed, she questions whether the fact the she and her friends constant reading of self-help books is a “sort of, arrogant individualism which imagines each new generation can somehow create the world afresh.”

Bridget (book Bridget, lesser so movie Bridget) spends copious amounts of time referencing self-help books. Especially  when dealing with her own love life, or in helping her friends dissect their own romantic entanglements.

Are self-help books the problem, as Bridget questions in whatever current angst she is found? Or do self-help books actually, er, help?

There is no definitive research to show that these books help or hinder. Indeed, as Oran Canfield, son of Jack Canfield (the Chicken  Soup for…author) notes, there is often an alarmingly big difference between the public and private lives of self help gurus. They tell us how to get it all together, when they themselves don’t have it all together.

“I never had any faith in any of that self-help shit,” Oran has been reported as saying.

But what about personal experience? Have self help books improved your life – or mine, for that matter?

I cringe when I say it (in case admitting to reading self help books is akin to sneaking chocolate from a child) but, yes, self help books have been my aide and guide throughout my life. Yes, so many of them say the same things in repetition. Yes, so many of the advice seems superficial.  Yes, few of the authors have credentials or even experience enough to write the self-help, self-improvement book.

But sifting through some self help manuals has allowed me to pinpoint what it is exactly that is good in my life. Sorting through visualisations and mantras has given me a sixth sense for bullshit – and a sixth sense about when something, however outlandish, might work. (Who knew that Cheryl Stayed changing the script given to her as a woman, her “I am brave, I am safe, I am strong” affirmation, would remind me of my courage and power and allay my fears?).

Self-help books led me to philosophy.  To Aristotle’s idea of the science of happiness

To the mean between two excesses – you know, that balance that we all talk about.

Self- help, it seems, stretches back to ancient times.

We become reflexive people. We are inspired to make better choices. We take positive action. We think about the big questions in life.

And we learn more about ourselves and others.

What self-help books have helped you?

 

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authors, Books, compassion, family, Life, life hacks

I read because.

I am sitting in a bookshop after work. In the bookshop cafe. Drinking tea. Writing. Reading.

I like to read. I enjoy both fiction and non-fiction. But in either form I enjoy the description of ideas and people. Reading challenges my mental paradigms, and helps me gather new ones, new thoughts, new ideas, perhaps layered upon and blended with the old.

Reading can be both public and private. Indeed, it has been said that reading, especially reading fiction, encourages empathy  – that it is a kind of empathic technology.

I don’t know if that is particularly true but I do know of the power of narrative transportation. Indeed, research been shown that millennials who were immersed in the Harry Potter narratives have been influenced in terms of empathy for the outsider. This has, apparently also affected their votes.

Now that is pretty powerful. As Neil Gaiman said: “Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. And discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontented”.

Reading thus becomes a conversation. Reading together can draw us together, as individuals and families and communities. Barack Obama, on meeting author Marilynne Robinson, commented: “When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you”.

I think reading, and reading aloud as a family, has encouraged us to see new and different viewpoints. To question and to think.

And, most of all, I think reading has been a pleasure in my life, both reading on my own and reading aloud to children. The stories have woven threads of pleasant memories.

 

 

 

authors, Books, childhood, family

Your favourite author at age 11?

I remember when I was eleven. For a time, we lived with my grandparents in a three bedroom apartment. It was a year when I only attended one school (a milestone in my sixth grade year, in comparison to the four different school of the previous year). I moved to a new school (yet again) at the start of the year. And, in the wide school library, I discovered the author E. L. Konigsburg1048816

The first book I read by Konigsburg was Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elisabeth. Yes, it inspired me to start a ‘witches club’ for, like Jennifer, I was new to the school and area and wanted to make my mark, knowing I would not fit in easily.  Then I discovered From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. A book I have savoured. A book that continues to inspire my love for museums (and my occasional wish to run away!).  A book I have shared with many children, my own and others, that still inspires each generation.

What did I like about these books and this author?

I liked the honesty about the little things in life. The details. The conversations.

I liked how Konigsburg weaved stories of growth amid the realisation of adventure in the every day…and in the everydayness of the stories. Konigsburg had the  ability to perceive the extraordinary within the ordinary,

I enjoyed (enjoy) her descriptions. Plain. Unadorned. But never simplistic.

I appreciated, and do so even more today, her use of phrasing. A word here, a word there, clusters of text that made me catch my breath and know, inside, that my own story had been articulated.

The characters’ lives, in each of those two books, suggested normalcy. And normalcy was a perfume for me as a child, in my own mixed-up, muddled-up life.

The stories of Elisabeth, and Jennifer, and Claudia and Jamie, whispered to me that, maybe, one day, I could write too. I already scribbled stories and novellas in the back of my old school exercise books. Konigsburg’s writing encouraged me to believe that I, too, could write stories like her. Stories of childhood and life.

E. L. Konigsburg, like Cynthia Voigt, wrote of children and for children, with raw, compassionate honesty. With terse but haunting descriptions. Of plots and characters that echo life with that hint of more.

Because “Having words and explanations for things is too modern..” ( ‘From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’).

What was one of your favourite childhood novels?download

 

 

 

 

Books, Catholicism, Life, politics, refugees, Women

What should we read, right now?

9781408855706_309035.jpegDolores Umbridge: I am sorry, dear, but to question my practices is to question the Ministry, and by extension, the Minister himself. I am a tolerant woman, but the one thing I will not stand for is disloyalty. 
Minerva McGonagall: Disloyalty? 
Dolores Umbridge: Things at Hogwarts are far worse than I feared. 

If I were homeschooling now, in this age of fear of immigrants, of wishing to publish (weekly) crimes of ‘aliens’, of the rippling effects of such decisions across the world, I would re-read the Harry Potter books with my children. Heck, I’ll probably re-read them now myself, anyway.

J.K. Rowling got it right. The Ministry of Magic and Dolores Umbridge are perfect characterisations of swift, reactionary, dare I say populist policies delivered under the guise of protection. So that when others criticise the policies and actions, these others are criticised as simply being ‘others’, as being ‘disloyal’, as anti-ministry (anti-government) rebel rousers.

‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, in particular, demonstrates the creeping effect of policies and culture that choose to focus on what appears to be good, or even on what is actually good, while ignoring that which is also bad in the regime. Indeed, the swift action in trying people who are against the Ministry of Magic, of picking targets for fear and hate, allows the Ministry to create a culture of fear with misinformation.

Harry Potter: But if I keep popping in and out of the Ministry, won’t it look like I approve of what they’re doing? 

Rufus Scrimgeour: It would give everyone a boost to think that- 

Harry Potter: No, sorry. I don’t think that will work. I don’t like some of the things the Ministry are doing. Locking up Stan Shunpike, for one. 

Rufus Scrimgeour: I would not expect you to understand. These are dangerous times. You are sixteen years old- 

Harry Potter: Dumbledore’s a lot older than sixteen, and he doesn’t think Stan should be locked up either. You’re making Stan a scapegoat, just like you’re trying to make me a mascot! Later. 

Rufus Scrimgeour: I see. You prefer – like your hero Dumbledore – to disassociate yourself from the Ministry. 

Harry Potter: I don’t want to be used. 

Rufus Scrimgeour: Some would say it’s your duty to be used by the Ministry! 

Harry Potter: Yeah, and others might say it’s your duty to check people actually are Death Eaters before you chuck them in prison! You’re doing what Barty Crouch did. You never get it right, you people, do you?! Either we’ve got Fudge, pretending everything’s lovely while people get murdered under their noses, or we’ve got you, putting the wrong people in prison and pretending you’ve got the Chosen One working for you!

The parallels with the current immigration crisis and subsequent vetos on immigration and dislike targeted towards groups of people, as though a few speak for the many, is evident.

And J. K. Rowling again got it right. Because the novels offer hope. Hope in the actions of those concerned for truth, compassion and mercy. Hope that we, too, like Harry and his friends, can make a positive difference in the narrative of fear. To fight for mercy, to be merciful, again and again.

[Harry thinks to himself] …’how they had talked about fighting a losing battle, and that it was important to fight, and to fight again, and to keep fighting, to keep evil at bay, though never quite eradicated.’

We can take positive action, in both small and big ways. Read, write, share information. Pray. Volunteer. Donate. Discuss. Take political action even. Look carefully at how we treat others and for whom we vote.

Remembering the dignity and respect that should be offered to all of humanity, even when it may be difficult or inconvenient or have an economic cost. For not everything can be counted in economic terms. Not everything is political. Most everything involves humanity, and remembering that people, you, me, mums, dads, sisters, brothers, not objects but people, are affected and are involved.

So that we keep on working for that which is good for all. There is no turning back once we realise the good.

You’ve said to us once before that there was a time to turn back if we wanted to. We’ve had time, haven’t we? (Hermione, ‘Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince’).

Life

A learning habit?

One thing we homeschoolers and unschoolers are often asked is ‘How do you teach your kids?’… Or, ‘Are you a teacher?’

What I have found it that it matters less what and how or if we teach.

What matters more is that we develop a learning habit and a learning environment. A habit where we peg activities onto other activities rather than a mad rush through the day .A habit that reinforces that which we know is most important – books, free time, family time, discussion, time outdoors.

A habit of reading and talking together. Sharing books and thoughts.

I have often felt that it is this learning habit, some rhythm in our days or week, with lots of reading and talking that has ‘made’ our education. People ask how it is that my sons do well at undergraduate and postgraduate study. I think it is because they have developed that learning habit, borne out of rhythm, experience, passion, and love.

It was gratifying to read of the importance of these factors (habit and reading) in a book called ‘The Learning Habit’. Yes, it is written to help parents and children with school homework and with establishing patterns of learning for school and college success. Yes, there are issues I have with the book concerning screen time and bedtime (but I also acknowledge that these issues are more important for families with children at school then they are for unschoolers).

However, it was encouraging to note the studies, experiences and anecdotes that describe the positive effect on children of ‘a learning habit’, namely a routine or rhythm in their life (not necessarily every day) and a value placed on reading and reading aloud and family time.

Almost a recipe for unschooling.learning habit

Books, Life, Unschooling

Woman vs Woman

A colleague of mine was due for her yearly student review, at the university where she works. In student reviews, students in your classes complete a questionnaire about your lecturing and teaching, with space for additional comments concerning performance, if required. My colleague was upset, however. Why? A young female student came to her after completing the review, to let her know that she was the one who criticised the lecturer’s dress in additional comments

Now, let me say one thing. Many male lecturers dress casually and no student ever comments on their clothing. Yet, when asked to review a woman lecturer’s lecturing and teaching performance, another woman feels she must comment on dress. And fashion.

Why do women do this to each other? Why are we our own worst enemies?

Recently, researchers in North Carolina in the U.S. ran online courses for students. The lecturers ran one course under their actual names and gender and, simultaneously, the same course under a different name, changing their gender. The results? When students were told the lecturer was male, they rated their lecturer higher in performance rankings. When students were told their lecturers were female, well, the lecturer performance ratings took a dive.

And female students rated female lecturers more harshly.

Now, some have posited that this animosity among women is a natural thing….boys will be boys and women will be haters…to other women. However, it seems to me that it is more learned behaviour than natural behaviour. And thus, if it can be learned, it can also be unlearned.

Unfortunately, as Juliette Frette writes, much of the tension between women, much of the general meanness, concerns looks, weight, beauty. You know, you attend a class and afterwards, over coffee, your female friends around the table start criticising another woman’s body, or fashion choices, or makeup, or…

As though looks define our femininity.

On the other hand, in some circles, it is not our looks that are considered suitable fodder for dissecting and discussing and just general dissing.

No, in other circles, it’s our qualifications, our intellect…we are seen as too smart for our own good, in completing our PhD, or not quite making the grade because our thesis is on women and family related issues.

In still other arenas, it is our mothering style. Having been labelled as unattractive, a poor housekeeper and a poor mother by a woman I admired, I know the hurt that such tensions creates. These are the so-called mommy wars – debates over breastfeeding, working, homeschooling, ways to homeschool (unschooling? School at home? Should her kid start university courses so early?), parenting styles, wifely duties (“Did you hear they split up? He left her. I bet it’s because she was too busy for him/spent too much time on the kids/works/homeschools/you name it”…ignoring the fact that this is private information and, just perhaps, it wasn’t that the husband left her…).

Seriously, this has to stop. Frette lists ways we can change the tensions among women. My stance is to become pro-woman, pro other women. To take the other’s side. To change the topic of conversation. To have a meta-discussion about discussing other women.

To remember, in the words of Harriet Vane, in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, that we are ‘cursed with both hearts and brains’, with the responsibility of using both wisely; especially in resolving the women vs women debates.

Books, Life, Unschooling

Promiscuous reading

Author (Paradise Lost) John Milton argued for promiscuous reading.

Now, the word promiscuous has certain connotations in our culture. Yet, promiscuous, removed from sexual connotations, initially implied random, casual, indiscriminate behaviour.

It is the idea of random reading that I am exploring here, under the banner of promiscuous reading. That kind of reading that just happens, casually, because books are strewn around the house. Or on your bedside table. Or on the higgledy-piggledy bookshelves, so that when you go to search for one book, you become lost in a book-savouring haze, and come away with another six books that you want to read and re-read, in addition to the original book for which you were searching.

This is promiscuous reading at I'd like to see you have a little direction.its best. Reading from a variety of books, different genres, unrelated authors, prose, poetry, non-fiction, biography, classics, graphic novels,  apologetics. Whatever it is that strikes your fancy, rather than working through a prescribed booklist.

In some ways, the prescribed booklist limits the experience of reading. It limits the reader’s exploration, and blocks mental conversation with a number of contradicting  ideas. When we read promiscuously, however, we explore a number of ideas, we stretch ourselves mentally, we enter into dialogue with authors, ideas, writing styles; and with others, our colleagues, friends, family. Is Dumbledore right, for example, in asking Snape to kill him, to protect Draco? Does the act of killing affect us, as explored in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment? We make connections with Nietzsche’s discussion of man as a ‘sick animal’ and contrast this with the hope of St John Paul II’s ‘theological anthropology’, viewing humanity as a complex whole, body, soul, heart and conscience, mind and will, with a vocation to love.

These kinds of links are made with promiscuous reading. Indeed, promiscuous reading often manifests itself in ‘having more than one book on the go”. It has been likened to being a ‘book-adulterer’ but I think it has more worth than that.

In my case right now, that means Woman by Edith Stein, The Brokers by John Grisham, Divergent by Veronica Roth, The Trials of Theology by Brian Rosner and some Advent/Christmas reading – Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Pope John Paul II and The Christmas Mouse by Miss Read. An eclectic bunch, a promiscuous bunch, with books picked up to read at disparate times, according to mental agility and/or tiredness in the moment. It’s those reading rhythms of life.

Promiscuous reading was something I encouraged in our homeschooling. Strewing books on the table, in baskets, near the computer. Sharing books avidly. Reading picture books and contemporary fiction alongside classics and  books like Supertrucks and The Way Things Work. Coming to realise, as Donnalyn Miller describes in The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child,  ‘that every lesson, conference, response, and assignment I taught must lead students away from me and toward their autonomy as literate people.

Promiscuous strewing and sharing of books can lead to promiscuous readers, whose lives will be made richer through their contact with a range of topics, genres, authors. And I agree with Ms Miller (hers is a great book, by the way, on encouraging reading in children): ‘the purpose of school (I would say education) should not be to prepare students for more school (or only for possible future needs). We should be seeking to have fully engaged students now.’