All posts by Kimberly Williams

What Prevents Creativity, or Some Thoughts on creativity, Part II

One of the greatest hindrances to creativity is the desire for perfection. I phrase it this way, “desire for perfection,” on purpose because perfection really is determined through individual judgment. In other words, perfection is a determination and not a state of being. Is a child who is born with eight toes imperfect?  Is a grammatically flawless novel intriguing if the plot itself is boring?  We humans get to decide when something is perfect, and so we also decide when it is not. And in this determining and desiring, we often use perfection to let ourselves off the hook. We might find ourselves having thoughts like, “Well, I’m not going to get it perfect, so why try it at all?” This, in truth, is simply a way of avoiding having to attempt something, especially if we feel unsure about doing it and living up to our own standards. What we forget, sometimes, is that we often have the power to shift the standard. We can give ourselves permission to try something and not be good at it.

We also might find ourselves taking another tact and declaring: “I’m not good at _____.” I hear people say this all the time. I tell them what I do for a living, and they say, “Oh, I’m not good at English.” And I think, “If English is your primary language, and you’re communicating to me right now using that language, and I’m understanding you, how are you not good at it?” I think what that person means to say is perhaps one of the following:

  • “I don’t enjoy writing.”
  • “In the past, I haven’t experienced the results I wish to in my English classes.”
  • “I have other, stronger, natural abilities that fall into other disciplines. And I have been rewarded for those.”

In general, we don’t like to do what we’re not good at  because we haven’t been rewarded for it in the past. However, not being rewarded doesn’t actually mean that we’re not good at that given task. My poetry is rejected by publishers on a regular basis. But any poet’s poetry is. In the world of contemporary poetry, regular rejection is part of the process. That rejection doesn’t mean the poetry isn’t good. It means that that publisher isn’t interested in publishing it.

When we aren’t good at something, that in itself is a different kind of invitation. Not being good at something doesn’t mean we must banish it from our lives forever. Here’s an example:

My drawing skills arrested at about the third or fourth grade level. I have trouble drawing anything but stick figures.  And when I color, I don’t like to stay in the lines. One time, about a dozen years ago, I was in a writing workshop, and we had to storyboard (draw) our topic. What I realized is that with no one to judge me, I really enjoyed the drawing process. Was I good at it? No. I hadn’t elevated my fourth grade skills. Did I enjoy it? Yes, greatly. It felt contemplative. It was tactile, and I am a tactile person. Did I see the story I was about to write differently for drawing it out? I did; the process made me use a different part of my brain., and I was able to expand my approach. Did it matter that I suck at drawing? Not at all. Did I have to stay in the lines? Nope.

Giving ourselves permission to do something that we are not very skilled at is a way to encounter creativity because we are inviting our brain to do something it either hasn’t done in a while, or it hasn’t done at all. Doing something we’re not good at fires up new neurons which gets us thinking and seeing the world in new ways.

My suggestion? Give yourself some low stakes: draw for yourself. Play a round of golf on a public course. Go bowling by yourself. Doodle in a meeting. Try something you think you’re not good at and leave the self-judgment behind. What does it feel like to give yourself permission in this way? What does it feel like to do something and enjoy the process without worrying about the outcome?  My hope is that it will be freeing, and in the freedom will come new ideas and impulses, which is the very heart of creativity.


Thoughts on Creativity–Part I

Creativity, creative thinking, and the creative process are all aspects of being human that I hold dear. Perhaps this is because I’m finally old enough to identify creativity as the thread that defines and brightens my life. The creative act is what I found most meaningful in third grade writing my first book of poetry. I didn’t realize it then because I didn’t have the words to articulate it. But I remember that feeling of contentment each time I wrote and added a poem to the collection. And I can recapture that contentment any time I choose. 

It is not news to proclaim that creativity is undervalued in our culture. The arts’ place at the periphery of our society in general and in education in particular are, too, part of that undervaluing. Though there’s a hopeful upswing in general interest in creative thinking, thanks to the inspirational work by people like Sir Ken Robinson and Michael Michalko and books like _Robot Proof_ by Joseph E. Aoun. There are also the great theories and ideas about [creative] flow put forward by psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, beginning somewhere in the 1990s, which helped tune the contemporary world into the importance of creativity as a regular and fruitful human process and not just something odd artists do.

So finally we are at the point where we have more mindful opportunities to infuse creativity in our daily lives; it is present and encouraged. I say “mindful opportunities” because the truth is that we live creative lives daily, and I would argue that in the way most of America has structured itself since World War II, the majority of us are presented with choices to be creative daily: we cook. We communicate. We problem solve. All of these are creative acts. All of these require ingenuity and achieving an end that had not existed prior to a given moment. We simply might not see it that way.

For example, when I ask my students to write an essay for a composition class, I am asking them to create something that before that moment never existed. The moment they receive the assignment and begin just thinking about — well, I could write about X or maybe Y or Z–that thought process begins the creative process that will result in something entirely new and unique existing in this world. Any time we assign students to create something that didn’t exist before — a project, a speech, a presentation, we are asking them to create anew. But I’m not sure that we instructors always see it this way. I’m not sure that students see it this way either. There are many reasons why this is possible: the focus on the end — the grade, the evaluation, the assessment. There is also that penchant for being practical. Let’s face it: when it’s Thursday evening and I have to cook my son and me dinner after a long work and school week, I’m not thinking that I’m about to embark on a creative act; I’m thinking, “How do I get dinner done so I can relax a little and go to bed?” But the moment that I remind myself that cooking dinner is a creative opportunity, the pressure lessens. I can enjoy it more, or I can use the time doing something I’m familiar with (e.g. frying up some chicken) to have a little active meditation as I go through the process of preparation. Simply being mindful of what I’m about to do makes all the difference.

The more mindful I become of these small acts of creativity, the more I become aware of what constructs — social and personal — humans build to block and even devalue creativity: between habits and mindsets and the busy way we currently live, it’s very easy to not see this perspective: that the creative process is valuable not because of what it produces. It’s valuable because it’s a mindful practice, a practice that connects us firstly to ourselves. When we have that connection, we are preparing ourselves for living richer and more fulfilling lives. We are preparing ourselves to achieve success, simply by focusing on the process rather than the end results. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is so. If we go through any creative process mindfully, sooner or later the results will turn out satisfactory. If it’s later that we experience these results, then we also get a lesson in patience and perseverance.

In my next blog, I will examine the ways those ways–habits and mindsets (both individual and societal) that block creativity. 


What Change May Come? Some insights and observations

This is my last full-time semester at GCC. In the fall, I’ll be teaching part-time for GCC and strictly online while pursuing a PhD program in Australia. The Australian government has granted me a scholarship with a stipend, and I won’t have to teach as part of my graduate work.

Needless to say, this semester has been different for me from prior semesters. This coming fall will be the first time since the fall of 1999 that I won’t be teaching English classes full-time face-to-face at the college level. For whatever reason, this knowledge of an ending coming has made me more cognizant of a few changes in myself as a teacher as this final full-time gallops away.

1) I am grading faster. I don’t know why. I’m a slow reader and have always been a slow grader. Perhaps knowing that the end is (sort of) nigh in the grading realm, I am motivated more than ever to reach it.

2) I am more patient with students. In the past, when a class hasn’t performed well overall on a given assignment, I’ve pretty much taken it personally and secretly brooded for days. This semester, I finally said, “Okay, that didn’t work.” And then we covered more material and techniques and I found and offered more examples, and then students revised and resubmitted their work.

3) I am less patient with students. I’m having a harder time than usual hearing the hard stories — the ones that cause our students illness and angst and oftentimes prevent their successes. I had one student who was sick with the flu for ten days and every class he missed resulted in an email from him with the blow-by-blow of his bodily suffering. Really, I would have been convinced had he just told me he wasn’t well. In this way, I feel helpless to help my students this semester in a way I haven’t before.  I think this might be because I can no longer imagine the big picture and how we all fit into it. 

4) I am more patient with myself. I have made some big decisions here in the past few months. What if I’m wrong? What if it’s not at all a good idea to leave my tenured position in order to pursue a PhD mid-life in a country I’ve never even visited before? What if? I have to trust myself. If I don’t, what good have the mistakes and successes of the first half of my life been for? Hard as it is, I’m learning to trust myself and to ignore all of the other worrying voices that suggest to me somehow that I can’t. I shouldn’t. I’m crazy if I do. 

5) And now 1-3 make sense to me. Because I have changed my relationship to myself, all other relationships shift, including the working relationships I have with my students. Though if I had known that moving to Australia would help me grade faster, I might have tried doing it sooner. 🙂 

6) I am noticing everything — the birds on campus, the later sunsets, the shift in temperature by ten degrees walking the dog at 6:30 in the morning. It used to be that when it was time to move on, I simply closed my eyes and jumped. But I don’t want to leave Arizona without having really seen it. I don’t want to leave Arizona without having really lived here. I want to move along as mindfully as I can and that means taking my time while I’m still here. 




Last week, I dreamt of getting ahead on my grading. I dreamt of Spring Break coming. I dreamt of sleeping a little extra on the weekend. I dreamt of the conference I am going to next week and did a bunch of mental organizing to begin to get ready. And then what I didn’t imagine happening happened:

What happened instead is I got sick. I came down with a sinus infection that left me feeling like an anvil had replaced my brain. The last sinus infection I had had a few years ago felt, instead, like an athlete wearing cleats was standing on my face. Because I didn’t immediately recognize the anvil symptom, having remembered only cleats in my face, it took me five days to realize I needed medicine. I thought I only had a cold. Needless to say, recovery has been slow. Instead of catching up on my grading, I’m falling behind. Instead of sleeping, I’m coughing and caught in that weird place you go when you try to sleep but you’re sick and on meds — that place of anxiety and strangeness that isn’t everyday life but also isn’t really a dream world.

I didn’t just fall behind in grading. I fell behind in my blogging. I fell behind in my house-cleaning. I simply fell behind. I’m still behind.

What I have mostly found myself doing this unexpected time, and it’s been over a year since I’ve not felt well, is letting myself just be sick. I’ve made two pots of homemade soup. I bought extra tissues. I canceled classes. And when I let myself feel guilty and tried to go back early this past Tuesday, I regressed and missed two more work days here at the end of the week. So then I went back to letting myself not feel well.

During this time of going through life with an anvil in my head, oddly enough, I have mostly been thinking about the imagination. How powerful it is! Time and again, it saves us. It helps us understand. It helps us to be understood. When the Tele-doctor asks over the phone, “What are your symptoms?” I can say, “There’s an anvil in my head.” And we both understand what I mean, and he knows I need antibiotics. I have been thinking about how imagination allows a sick person to imagine feeling better. To imagine sun on a cloudy day. To imagine a less insane world. To recall the woods and a peaceful retreat I had over winter break while right now living only yards off of busy Bell Road. This type of imagining, at least for me, gives way to hope. When I hope, I can feel better. When I hope, I can heal. When I hope, I can dream again and again fantasize about getting ahead on my grading.

This time of not feeling well has unexpectedly given me the gift of reflection. It slowed me down smack dab in the middle of a galloping semester so I could have some moments of quiet and gratitude. Rather than concentrating on how behind I am, I am, instead, dwelling in gratitude. It’s seems a strange place to be with an anvil in my head, but here I am.


What’s In a Name? What I Wish, Part II

What is in a name? Connotation weighs more than denotation. My son is currently in middle school, and any child in his school will tell you that words matter. It’s about at that point in life that we humans learn that lesson if we have not learned it sooner.

I struggle with the word ‘assessment’ mostly because it seems to call attention to something that teachers are doing all the time, and in calling attention to it, it suddenly feels weird. It’s like how normal teaching can be until you realize that you have had a string of mucus laying alongside your nostril for the entire class period. That happened to me last week. It was such a good class until I got back to my office and met my horror. Suddenly, it wasn’t a good class at all, all for a lack of self-knowledge and a tissue. I wondered why someone hadn’t told me that I needed to wipe my nose. Then, I realized I hadn’t asked. With assessment, it’s true you often have to ask to see if you’re getting the results you want.

Notice that I don’t say that I struggle with assessment. I don’t. I only struggle with the word, and, since I am a word person,  that matters to me.

I would say that when I’m teaching I’m assessing every moment. I am reading my students’ faces, their body language, I am listening to what they say and what they don’t say — every gesture and utterance can be a clue when you are teaching for determining how the moment/the lesson/the material can be done better. Then, of course, you can also ask, and oftentimes, I do.

I wish assessment could be called ‘what we are all learning with some specific details’. But I expect that’s too long a phrase. I wish it could be called “overt questions with answers about learning.” I wish it could be called, “check point of understanding.”  I wish it could be called “measuring student growth.” Or, “measuring instructor growth,” as it’s that, too.  I wish it could be called anything but ‘assessment.’



Those Left Out and What I Hope

I have been in school now since 1975. I started young, and I’ve had a handful of graduations, but for all intents and purposes, I feel that I’ve never left school; at some point, I just switched sides of the class room.

Despite being a “gifted” student growing up, I seldom learned the way that teachers wanted me to learn. I don’t have a great memory.  I’m a terrible speller (considering what I do for a living), and I often begin something at the end and work forward to the beginning. Therefore, I am not linear, and I’m really not even interested in things that are linear because they don’t capture my imagination. I love looking at maps as they spread out and go several ways. You’ll never catch me pouring over a timeline. I’m also not a procedural thinker: I know an answer to a math problem because I know it, and it makes sense to me. I often cannot explain how I got there.

Over the years, education has become what it has through a conglomeration of cultural, social, historical, and economic factors, and it ideally is designed only for a handful of certain types of thinkers.  I worry about everyone else. I worry about the student, like me, who wasn’t served well by spelling lists, whose imagination isn’t charged by summary writing and reports, who doesn’t find meaning in taking a multiple choice test, for whom making meaning is more important than displaying knowledge.

Despite being in education for years and being an English major with two advanced degrees , it took me years to realize that I belong in academia because it’s really not designed for thinkers like me. It took me decades, but I finally learned that I am what is called an intuitive thinker and an intuitive  writer. I take meaning and information from several places and make connections and generate what is new. I learn actively. . I think a lot. I trust myself, have an inkling and  I write. I use information, techniques and skills I’ve picked up on the way, and I see what I produce. Often it’s a surprise.  For example, when I sat down to write this blog, I had no idea I’d create this very paragraph. I wasn’t even thinking about it. It just arrived, and I used words to let it through.

I do enjoy data usually because it’s something to think about. It’s fun to interpret and extract meaning out of. I see numbers as a type of symbolism, and symbolism can be used to make meaning, but in this data-driven, logical realm that often dominates academia, I worry about students like me who interested in the wider perspective, who like numbers, but who also want more. I worry about the students who realize what they know slowly, through processes, not through objective testing and results. I learn from being in a moment and letting all I know and understand up to that moment materialize in certain ways, and there are times that moments cannot be represented numerically or through the collection of data, and if I’m asked to do that, then I’m probably not going to experience success.

I hope that with the diversity of thinkers that we have here on campus that there is room for many types of learners and thinkers. While the human brain works similarly for most people, it is so incredibly complex and unique, and each person has his or her own individual neurological make up and therefore an unique intelligence. I hope we’re building an environment that testifies to that individual beauty. I hope we’re inviting people to learn and be here in their own ways and not in the ways that we insist work best.


For Bisia (What Inspires Me Daily)

What amazes me is to see how the lines of lives come together — lead to a single time or a place. I am a big picture person, and I like to contemplate it. When I think about what inspires my work every day at GCC, I think of my grandma, Helen Kobylski. My sisters, cousins and I called her Bisia (pronounced Bee-sha). Bisia was the daughter of Polish immigrants, and she grew up in a Polish neighborhood on Detroit’s west side. When she was in sixth grade, her father died of cancer, and she dropped out of school to work to help support the family. She never went back to school.

Bisia was an avid reader, but she didn’t write much. The only evidence I ever had that she wrote was when she signed birthday cards, “Love, Bisia.” That was it. But she loved Westerns. She loved baseball. She loved a good political discussion. She loved bingo. She was so passionate about what she loved. She was also so limited by her lack of education, not at all in terms of her intelligence, but in terms of her ability to secure good work. Bisia never had a job that wasn’t in retail. She never had a job that earned much over minimum wage. She worked hard for decades, and when she retired, she was on a fixed income. Every single year for Christmas, my two cousins, two sisters, and I received the same gift from Bisia: a single, crisp, two dollar bill.

Bisia was not the kind of grandmother to spoil her grandkids.  She’d be more likely to yell at you to finish your homework or be too busy washing my cousins’ mouths out with bricks of Dial soap than she would be to give you a hug and a kiss. But when I went away to graduate school — all the way from Detroit to Cleveland — and came home on my breaks, Bisia would have a whole collection of food waiting for me. She would give me her bucket-sized government peanut butter, the government block of cheese, her ration of canned ham, and the gigantic rectangles of butter, all generic, all utterly delicious. I’d drive these back to Cleveland with me and share them with my fellow graduate students who didn’t live close enough to home to receive such a bounty.

Despite her own lack of education (and likely because of it), Bisia made sure that my mother was the first in the family to graduate from high school. Somehow, she sent my mother to Mercy College. Somehow, back when women didn’t really go beyond their bachelor degrees (if they went to college at all), my mom went to the University of Michigan for a Master’s Degree in Social Work. She did this before she met my dad and before my sisters and I were born. Somehow, my mother earned a graduate degree in the early 1960s.

Bisia’s story, and thus our family story, reminds me greatly of our students’ stories. So many GCC students come from somewhere else, speak another language, are first generation college students, are negotiating two languages (or more) and cultures daily — the one in public, and the one at home. I look out over my classroom, I listen to my students speak, I read their writing and learn their stories, and, when I do, my grandmother is always nearby. I see my GCC students, and I am reminded of where I am from. Every single day. I think of the tradition that existed only between my grandmother and me, of Bisia saving her allotment of government-assisted groceries, and it inspires me daily to help others achieve their higher education.

Bisia was the first person in her family of origin to live past age 49. Then she made all the way to her 80s. I was 34 when she died. There isn’t a single day when I’m in the classroom that I don’t think of my grandmother. She had a tough life, and she was fierce because she had to be; her energy went into investing in the future despite having very little resources. The lines of her life eventually helped draw the lines of mine. And now I just keep drawing them and extending them. In addition, I am blessed to be in the position of offering the opportunity for my students to draw their own lines to see where they might lead. When it happens this way, and all the lines come together –if even only for a semester or two — there really is no beginning, and there really is no end. It is the most motivating big picture for me ever, and it’s precisely what keeps me going.


I Have to Get Out More–with Gratitude

For a few days now, I’ve been thinking about how to write this blog, what to write in it, whether or not to name names. Because we work with so many outstanding people, I’m afraid of leaving someone out. Because words fail sometimes, I’m afraid of not really truly conveying how grateful I am to work here at GCC. I mean the courses-through-your-body kind of gratitude. Surely, the climate here in the Valley of the Sun is grand, and it’s springtime, and life is gorgeously budding right now, filling the air with the sweetness of jasmine and orange blossom. It’s true that we have a library which boasts some unbelievably world-renowned artists.

But it’s not only the environment or the students, it’s the people–our co-workers–that inspire my gratitude daily. I’ve never in my life worked with people whose integrity is so high that it makes me check mine to make sure it’s equal. I’ve never worked with people who care so deeply about their co-workers while still being respectful of personal space. I have always enjoyed teaching and have been thankful that I found a place in higher education. Coming here four years ago from a smaller institution that was out of state, it took longer to get to know people and find my niche than I thought it would. But what I learned has been most important: it was worth the wait. The connections I have made here at GCC have been invaluable to me as a person and a teacher, allowing me to grow in so many ways.

The older I grow, the more things I learn about myself with clarity:

  1. I am a lifelong learner, and allowing myself to be one is vital to my well being.
  2.  I am an absolute introvert, only playing an extrovert when working with students and co-workers.  Work takes most of my extroverted capabilities, and I’m otherwise likely to avoid being social, especially during this past year when life has been more challenging for me personally.

This is how I realized these very essential things about myself in the fourth decade of my life: though working here at GCC where I have found so many opportunities to belong, better myself, and become the best me I can. I can take fitness classes and be supported by those whom I work with (thanks Louise and Margo!); I can attend Weight Watchers meetings right in the middle of my week and be supported by others who are endeavoring towards a similar goal as I have; I can take weekly Wednesday CTLE walks (thank you Dawna and Meghan!) and have interesting and fun conversations with co-workers while stretching my legs.  All of these opportunities have allowed me to grow in small but steady ways and, over time, to make meaningful connections with the people I work with.  I imagine that if I worked somewhere else I might eventually have these self-insights, but working at GCC has allowed me overt opportunities to find this clarity, and these opportunities come from you– those whom I work with and who are reading this blog. That is a mighty big gift to receive  from one’s co-workers and place of employment.

Tuesday of this week felt unseasonably cold for swimming, which is what I often do on Tuesdays at 11:30. I thought to myself: If you’re not going to swim, you better get out and get some exercise.  So I took a walking tour of campus. I made myself leave my office chair, go away from the virtual piles of papers waiting to be graded on Canvas, and walk out into the sunshine and 72 degrees.

As I walked about campus, I noticed all kinds of things I don’t notice when I’m rushing to a meeting or to class.  I noticed, for example, the tree that has fuzzy round blossoms that smell like peaches.  I was surprised by the line of cedar trees by the Fine Arts Center. And I kept running into co-workers who said hello, who gave me hugs, who greeted me with warmth and appreciation for my just being at that very place at that very time. Certain people whom I don’t get to see very often inquired about my well being with great concern and specificity (Mark V. and Lori W.) This is when I’m reminded that my introverted self is so at home here at GCC because I am welcomed and appreciated just for being who I am. I don’t know how an organization creates this environment. I don’t know how to replicate it. I just know that it happens here and that I get to be a part of it daily. I receive encouragement when I need it. I have support problem-solving if I need it. I have company for exercise and encouragement (with concrete opportunities) to pursue my passions–writing, creativity, and teaching. Take this blog, for example. Ben and Jerry’s aside, it gives me great satisfaction to contribute in this way to our community and also to read everyone else’s writing. And if I want to be quiet and just put by head down and work, I can do that too.

So this blog ends with immense gratitude. Thank you, each of you reading this, for being a part of the place where I get to learn and develop into my best self every day. Thank you for being caring co-workers.  Thank you for giving me, in just the three days I’ve taken to compose this entry, more meaningful experiences and interactions that I can even recount or record in writing.  But even if I haven’t mentioned them here, be sure that I have taken them all to heart.





Missing Frank

One reason why I love teaching at the college level is because every sixteen weeks or so usher in new classes, a new crop of students, and new possibilities. There’s not really time to get into ruts and coast.

Generally, too, I’m pretty flexible with change. New textbook? We’ll work it in. New course to teach in English? Why, yes, I’ll give it a go.

Some people fear change. What I used to believe I feared more than change were ruts. That said, I’ve had more than my dose of change these past seven months, and with these changes have come the proverbial lessons. However, I’m a life-long student, and, as such, I’m willing to learn.

My father died in July. While he’d been steadily declining for eighteen months, his death still felt unexpected. Since he’s been gone, my entire work life feels different. This was a surprise to me.

However, for my father’s entire career and my entire life time, he worked in higher education as both an academic advisor and an instructor. When I was an undergraduate student, I attended and worked at the university where he worked for over thirty years, Wayne State University, and received half off tuition. My professors were his colleagues, and I worked hard after underachieving spectacularly in high school. My dad was proud of me. I found my niche in the English Department, specifically in creative writing, and I worked on the literary magazine my senior year and did poetry readings about the Detroit area my last two years there. I also minored in anthropology and Spanish. As a social scientist who loved language himself, my choice of studies delighted him.

I continued on to graduate school, and for a little while after I graduated, I even went back to Wayne State and taught English 101 as an adjunct. My dad and I met every Tuesday at a Lebanese restaurant on campus for lunch.

My dad followed my career with great enthusiasm and interest. Even after I moved cross country, he called me at least weekly to check in. My working in academia was absolutely a common ground for us, a way of for us to connect on several levels: intellectually, professionally, even pedagogically. While I don’t think I ever took this connection for granted, I also don’t think I realized how profound it was until it was gone.

When the new academic year started this past August, I wandered around GCC’s campus feeling lost. Even though my dad lived back in the midwest, and I’d been teaching west of the Mississippi since 1999, I still felt his absence acutely. When I received my first full-time faculty position in northwest Colorado, he was so excited that he even helped me drive the U-Haul across five states to get there. When we pulled into the tiny town that sported a community college with dorms and one traffic light, so different than the Bronx he grew up in and the Detroit he worked in for decades, he pulled over on Main Street and said to me philosophically, “Well, I guess you’ll just have to pretend you’re in the Peace Corps.

With my father gone, I had no one to review the batch of new students with, the new semester’s classes, or my latest research or poetry project. At first, I couldn’t understand my own situation. How could a father’s absence feel so acute when daily he lived so far away? I not only felt lost, I also felt confused by my disorientation.

Obviously tbe degree of change varies, and some of how we respond to change has to do with the magnitude of it. When my father was declining and I thought about his being gone, I never considered what effect it would have on me professionally. However, the effect has been large and daily. What I realize only now is this: change, when it’s self-initiated, is a form of control. I can pick my new classes, and often, depending on the course, I can choose my textbooks. Although I don’t pick my course outcomes, I pick the curriculum that helps meet them. But certain changes, the kind we can’t at all control, bring loss and thus grief. And for me grief is the most mysterious of emotions–appearing and then lingering when least expected. This academic year has indeed been a lesson for me in change–the hardest kind. The kind, I guess, that makes me more independent and, inevitably, a stronger person. But it’s also the kind I wish I didn’t have to face.





The Perfect Lesson, Or What I Learned This Week in the Pool

Yesterday, I graded ENG 102 papers. *Why aren’t they getting it?!* I kept asking myself. *Why is analysis so hard for the freshman writer?*

In my frustration, I thought to take a break. I thought to swim.

Having grown up in Detroit, I still marvel that I live in a place where I can swim outside in February. I marvel that I can walk across campus right in the middle of my day, jump into the pool, swish around and get my heart rate up, and then go on with my day like swimming is my own secret I carry with me everywhere I go.

In a way, it is. I have been an avid swimmer my entire life. I don’t much remember life without swimming. My mother cannot swim, but her daughters swam competitively. We even did synchronized swimming in the summers. My mother’s girls can swim.

After shivering for years in the unheated city pool where we swam on cool June mornings in Michigan, I finally understand that through her own inability in the water my mother gave me one of the best life skills I could ever have. There are many times I doubt myself in any given day, but I don’t doubt myself in the water. On one vacation about five years ago, I even found myself in choppy seas treading water trying to help another person who was having a panic attack. We were supposed to be snorkeling and we had no business being out in the water with such high wind and waves. But we had paid our fee, and the company took us out along with a few other tourists. I was the one who didn’t panic. I knew enough to be mindful of the danger I was in, but I also trusted myself enough as a swimmer to keep myself and others safe.

Yesterday, I took a swim lesson. This was probably a full forty years after one of the first ones I ever had.

At first I thought: What could I possibly learn about swimming? Well, apparently a lot. After forty years of swimming, what I know really well is my comfort zone, and when I’m not in the high seas attempting to snorkel on vacation, I generally stick to what I know. Yesterday, I Had to Do a Different Stroke. I had to use kickboard. I held on to the red foam float-able like I was six again and tried to imitate the motions that our instructor gave us. I moved no faster than a canoe going against fierce rapids.  At one point, I actually looked at the numbers on the side of the pool’s walls to confirm that I was going forward. Why wasn’t my body working right? When it came time to add the arms, my lower body and upper body wouldn’t cooperate with each other. It was complete discord. I was failing in the pool.

This is what I learned from this week’s failing moment. It was simple. It was profound. No matter how good we are at something, there is always another aspect of that something to learn. There is always another way to become the student, yet again, and learn about learning.

I watched as my lower body told my upper body to take a hike. I watched myself struggle. Mary Jane Onnen in the next lane over watched me struggle, too. It was the perfect lesson, returning me to a state of gratitude, and returning me to that group of ENG 102 papers later that evening with a lot more understanding and humility.