Live Your Story. Write Your Story. Share Your Story.

Surrounded by my stories – 22 completed, 28 more to go!

Before I launch into this post, I would like to share a preview of what I am working on for next Saturday’s post. Next week I will be sharing the story of an inspiring athlete who recently took a leap of faith and made some changes in her life. I will share how her life changes are going and learn more about her motivational athletic journey.

The subject of today’s post might be a bit premature, but the timing is also perfect. Eight weeks ago, I set out on an ambitious personal writing project, that I titled, 50 Life Stories. At the start of my writing journey, my goal was to write fifty personal stories that represent standout events or memories from my past. I had some idea of the subject of a few stories, but I also wanted the stories to show up organically. I wanted one story to plant the seed for the next story, and so on. I have stayed committed to the organic flow of story ideas and have been surprised by the memories and details that have bubbled up in my brain. My initial writing plan was to write three to four stories a week. I am close to that pace, at about three stories per week. My plan is to finish writing my fiftieth story before the week of Thanksgiving, so that I can press pause that week, before I begin the next phase of my writing process. Meeting my deadline is important to me. Going deep into reflection and the writing process is more important. I am intent on giving each story the attention it deserves. This is not a rush to put words on the page, this is about remembering, revisiting, reliving, and relinquishing. With some hesitation as to whether I could sit still long enough to craft fifty thoughtful, authentic, and honest stories, I began my journey. I had no idea just how transforming the experience would be for me – I just felt it was something I needed to do.

At the writing of this post, I am three stories shy of my halfway point (hence the “premature” comment). I have written twenty-two stories (53 Pages, and 29,379 words) and I have learned more about myself than I ever could have imagined possible at the beginning of this journey. I have many more stories to write, however, almost reaching the halfway mark is a monumental (personal) accomplishment and once I reach Story #25, I know I will be fired up to finish. The next “story” update will be two weeks from now and I expect to be well into my 35th story by then.   

Writing Process

I am not able to work on my 50 Life Stories every day, but when I do have time to write, I have found a few pre-writing steps and environment preferences that are helpful to the writing process.

Before writing:

I quiet the chatter in my mind by:

While writing:

I prefer:

  • having at least one hour, preferably two, before I commit to working on a story, because once I begin writing, I can quickly get lost in the story and lose track of time (ideally).
  • having a quiet writing environment, so that I can allow my mind to fully revisit and relive memories without the distraction of my phone or music (birds chirping outside is OK).
  • to mentally put myself in that moment of time and write the details as quickly as they unfold, paying close attention to recording sensory memories.
  • to spend more time allowing and creating rather than editing and revising (stopping too often to edit interrupts the creative process).
  • to highlight points of uncertainty, such as specific dates, that can be researched later.
  • to write a working title for each story.

After finishing a story:

  • I read through the story and spend time revising, with more to come after completing my 50th story.
  • I print that story and read it aloud, marking or adding as I go (I’ve also read several stories to my husband).
  • I then staple it and put it in a folder.
  • I write the first few lines of the next story, to preserve that constant stream of one-story-idea-leading-to-the-next-story-idea.
  • Then, I prepare for the next story, repeating the process again (usually the following day, or soon after).

Insights Gained

  • I recognize how much I have starved my self-expression year after year, and how freeing it has been to release creative thoughts.
  • I feel empowered by giving myself permission to put my creative goals first, rather than last, which usually means not at all
  • Working past the burden of “I don’t want to go there,” with several life experiences, I now have new perspectives and insights about life events, that would not have happened if I had not given myself the time to fully revisit those moments.
  • Writing toward the challenges, instead of running from them, has also allowed me to release limiting beliefs and baggage (some I wasn’t even aware, before starting a story).
  • Connecting story after story, I have discovered themes, patterns, and habits; some of those have been helpful and others have not. With a new awareness, I can work on those that do not serve me.
  • Taking the time to quiet my mind and write my stories has given my mind the opportunity to deliver cherished moments – moments I have not thought about, in some cases, for over forty-five years.
  • In writing my stories, I will have given my daughter the gift of “my stories,” which are also her stories (whether she was there or not). I wish I had the same from my deceased father.
  • My husband, as my only audience at this time, has learned more about me than he (or I) knew two months ago (and we’ve been together since January of 1990!).
  • Every story is a new opportunity to gain more insight about myself. I have twenty-eight more stories to go. I am excited and open to the possibilities.  

Write Your Story!  

My 50 Life Stories project has changed me in ways I could not have imagined two months ago, and I know I have more discoveries to make. At this time, I am not sure what will happen after my fiftieth story is written and my revisions are complete. That is OK. I am more concerned about fully embracing the process of reliving and writing, rather than the what will happen next question. Sometimes that reliving and writing brings me laughter and joy and sometimes it brings me tears and sadness. I welcome it all, because I know through each emotion I am learning, growing, and discovering more about myself and that is life changing.

I encourage you to take the time to relive and write your stories. Maybe you join me in writing in fifty stories, or maybe you write five stories. The number of stories you write is less important than the personal transformation you might go through between writing the first word of your first story and the last word of your last word story. I suppose the “last word” doesn’t happen until we take our final breath, because as long as we are living, we have stories to tell. Tell yours!

Copyright © 2019 Michele Lee Sefton. All Rights Reserved.

Shatter the Sameness

Must see collection at the Phoenix Art Museum. British born artist, Cornelia Parker, created the installation from the charred remains of a Texas Baptist church that was struck by lightning. Creativity and beauty inspired by “charred remains” is a lesson I can incorporate into my own life.

Parker, Cornelia. Mass (Colder Darker Matter). 1997. Burnt wood, wire, and string. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum.

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.” ~ Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein

Like many people, I am a creature of habit. That is, I was a creature of habit prior to last June. Before taking the leap into the unknown (that has since become my life) my daily routine was so consistent, that the movements of one weekday looked exactly like the next. Beginning with two snoozes of the sleep shattering alarm, then stepping through my re-traceable morning routine, on to my synonymous work schedule, followed by my familiar drive home and my repetitive evening rituals, I was caught in a cycle of sameness. Getting caught in the same loop (pun intended) is understandable; sameness is encouraged throughout many aspects and phases of our lives. Sometimes we need to shatter the sameness to discover our unique gifts. My wake up, work, and repeat routine gave me certainty, which is my preferred state of being, but my routine also turned me into a rote robot, mechanically stepping through my life. My predictable path gave me stability and robbed me of creativity. A change was needed.

Many changes have occurred in my life over the last four months since stepping off my predicable daily path. First, I had to move through the fear and regret of leaving stability. Or at least my belief in that concept. As most of us know, stability is just an illusion – if we capture it, it rarely lasts. Unexpected news can tear through our “stable” lives and leave us scattered. However transitory, my routine had become a series of carbon copy days that outlined what I needed to do in life, but not how to live. Next, I needed to rest, reflect, and restore. Focusing on those three overlooked “Rs” during the summer months gave me a mental and physical reboot. Recharged and redirected, I am now able to practice presence, listen to inner guidance, and explore other life paths. This exploration has encouraged me to invite more intention, purpose, and spontaneity into my life. Opening the door for these changes has also left plenty of room for uncertainty to step in, which sounds less terrifying now than it did four months ago. Through this journey, I have been reminded that the most memorable people, places, and sights are often those we discover when we take the side roads and take our time getting there.

Change your routine. Change your mindset. Change your life.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “The one thing we can count on is change” or some variation thereof. As someone who worked in public education for many years, I know this truth. However, in this common context, this approach feels reactionary. Change is thrust upon us and we are expected to adapt, whether we agree or not, or whether we have a say in the situation or not. Being able to adapt to change is vital to the survival of all species, and we are certainly no exception. Rather, we are the exception. As humans, we have the ability to not only adapt to change that is thrust upon us, but we have the incredible ability to do more than react to our environments. Among other human gifts, we can set desired goals and then determine if our current way of living and thinking will get us there or not. If not, we can proactively change what isn’t working and embrace a new way. Those changes might require life or mind modifications and they might create discomfort and disruption, but if we keep moving forward, adjust when needed, and surround ourselves with positive influences, we can achieve the change we are seeking.

As I move through discomfort and move forward with of my own journey of change, I have discovered unexpected gains from this walk.

Here are a few recent highlights:  

What I’ve Changed What I’ve Gained
Saying hello to strangers, rather than focusing on my own running to-do lists or staying in my personal bubble A chance meeting in a coffee shop with a young college student who is pursuing a career in a similar field to a close friend of mine. A quick exchange of contact information gave her a contact and a viable job lead.
Saying “yes” to new experiences that are outside of my norm, rather than saying “I am too busy” -Attending a class on learning how to create a 10-inch-hide drum that will be given to a youth in the valley.
-The joy of making something with my hands and connecting with a caring community
Freeing myself up in the evening, rather than focusing solely on my classroom responsibilities -Finally signing up for the weeknight photography class that I have thought about for years.
Joining a group at my church and meeting a lady who just moved here from out of state
Giving up watching the news in the morning, and most evenings Learning something by watching a twenty-minute informative Ted Talk, or inspiring podcast
Making a commitment to moving and exercising Increased strength and overall improved mental outlook
Sharing my words with an audience outside of my classroom A creative outlet, rediscovered joy, and a connection to others
A willingness to step outside my certain and predictable career path Time to explore new professional opportunities
An overcommitted schedule -An ability to be present and be there for my loved ones
-Pockets of cherished time to work on my 50 Life Stories
-Applying to assist the elderly in my community
Releasing excessive stress and the physical ailments that follow
-More time for healthy meals

Some discoveries have been expected and others have appeared wrapped in surprise and disguise. I may not know what next week or next month will bring as I work on intentional life changes, but I am learning to embrace the uncertainty and even delight in the mystery of it. I also look forward to sharing the stories of others who have created their own intentional and inspiring changes.

Copyright © 2019 Michele Lee Sefton. All Rights Reserved.

Shhhhhh. Let’s Try Quiet.

My quiet corner.

There are countless actions we can take to bring about positive change in our life, and ultimately the lives of others. We might find work that propels our purpose, we might release soul-depleting thoughts, habits, and relationships and replace them with soul-nourishing dialogue and interactions, we might leave our comfort zone and try something new, we might lend a hand or shoulder to someone, we might expand our perspectives by traveling to new places, we might show up and speak up for worthy causes, or we might listen carefully to words, sounds, and even the quiet around us.  

Find the quiet.

I created this blog to chronicle my journey of intentional change, and at the end of each week I share a sliver of insight gained as I move toward living passionately and away from living passively. My mindset is profoundly different from where it was four months ago. Four months ago, I was mentally, physically, and spiritually depleted. I needed to pause, rest, reflect, and change course. I have since made positive changes to my work life, my daily habits, my prayer life, my connection to others, my commitment to nutrition and exercise, and my pursuit of play and passion. Focusing on each of these important life areas has brought me to a place of absolute gratitude and inspired clarity.

My journey of living passionately is just beginning – the roots of this new life are shallow. Having seen many trees topple during monsoon storms, I understand how important strong roots are to sustaining life during unpredictable weather. A tree that appears rooted and strong, might actually hide shallow roots growing in depleted soil. Our growth and stability are the same. To establish deep roots in this new life direction, I understand how vital it is to nurture my being with inspired people, places, ideas, and prayer. I understand how important it is to tend to the health of that which is hidden – the health of my soul.

Just like there are countless ways to bring about positive changes in our lives, there are also many ways to strengthen our stability by nurturing our inner lives. One way that I accomplish inner strength is by reading books. Becoming internally stronger is not necessarily a goal I have when beginning a book, and it certainly wasn’t my aim as a young reader. Intended or not, stories have strengthened my understanding of life and myself. Books have given me a connection to other people, places, and ideas, and each, in their unique way, have changed me. I could spend the rest of my life writing about the many books that have changed me, and two books had that effect on me just before starting this blog. I will get to the importance of those two pre-blog books, but first a few highlights from (just) five books that had a profound impact on me as a young reader:

  • As a middle-schooler my life was forever changed when I learned about the mistreatment of immigrant families when reading Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle.
  • Through S.E. Hinton’s, The Outsiders, I learned that although privileges are not equally distributed at birth, our familial status is not a predictor of the bonds we forge or the beauty we choose to see in the world.  
  • I learned about grit and courage in John Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath, which taught me about the plight of Oklahoma tenant farmers who lost everything during the Dust Bowl that occurred during the Great Depression.
  • The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison, exposed me to the damaging consequences of racism and the limiting societal views of what beauty should look like.
  • Reading the Bible, as a young person often left me with questions, but the experience also left me with comfort and connection that was felt, if not understood.

This short list features a few books from my childhood that changed me. Books continue to do that, and I cannot imagine living without experiencing the growth that stories can bring. I experienced the benefit of two books just before starting this blog forum. The two books are distinctly different, but both came into my life at just the right time.

  • Susan Cain’s, Quiet-The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, will forever change how I see myself and other “quiet” types. Former wall street lawyer, turned author, Susan Cain, spent seven years researching the topic of introverts and extroverts and how each role is perceived in our society. Extroverts tend to be celebrated and introverts tend to be undervalued, even though so many inspired ideas, breakthroughs, and successful businesses, are attributed to introverted leaders and thinkers.  
  • The Bookshop on the Corner, by Jenny Colgan, was a fun find that unexpectedly gave me a dose of inspiration to embark on a new journey. Against societal pressure, the main character decides to pursue an outrageous dream and open a mobile library in Scotland (far from home) after losing her librarian job. The book also gave me a strong desire to visit Scotland someday.

Many years ago, I heard the phrase, “Except for the books you read and the people you meet, you will be the same person in one year, as you are today.” I would like to give credit to the author of this memorable quote, but I have not been able to find a match – only a few variations. Regardless of the source, the sentiment encourages us to include reading as part of our journey of growth and change. I plan to continue my reading voyage as long as I have a mind to make meaning of the messages.

Copyright © 2019 Michele Lee Sefton. All Rights Reserved.

Life is More Meaningful with You, My Friend

Friends, sisters, sisters who are friends? I will never know, but this photograph symbolizes friendship to me. I photographed these two beauties and their sidekick in 1997, while I was vacationing in San Diego.

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art … It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival. ~ C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

When the school year began just over four weeks I ago, I was not hurriedly preparing for the new school year, I was preparing for a new life direction. Since then most days have been anchored by two goals:  making progress on my “50 Life Stories” and looking for meaningful employment that is purposeful without being all-consuming. Both goals energize me, but sometimes this new path also terrifies me and leaves me questioning my decision to act on my desires. This was especially true last week when one of my job pursuits turned into a third interview, with a required presentation at the end of the interview. As a veteran teacher, I have presented to students thousands of times, but this presentation took on a heightened stress level that was further amplified by the pressure of interviewing, that immediately followed needing to walk two blocks in downtown Phoenix during the hottest part of the day. By the time I arrived, I may not have looked a hot mess, but I surely felt it.

I have been focused on accomplishing personal and professional goals, but what I have discovered is that this new life walk has given me pockets of time during my week that I did not have as a high school teacher. As I embark on my newfound journey of change, I greet each day with astonishment. I am astonished at the limitless possibilities of each day. I am also astonished at how much time I devoted to my former job and how little time I devoted to so many other aspects of life, like cultivating friendships. With newly discovered pockets of time in my schedule I am seizing the opportunity to act on inspired friend moments, instead of brushing them aside because there just isn’t enough time.

Although I allowed my job to consume most of my time over the last several years, having and being there for my friends has always been important to me, and I have instilled the same values in my daughter. I made the extra effort to drive her long distances to see old friends whenever we moved from one community to the next. This effort took planning, time, and resources, but I wanted her to stay connected to people and build lasting relationships that would endure beyond the limitations of distance. Now, as a twenty-something she has friends across Arizona, California, Oregon and beyond, and she understands that there are forever friends who will always be there for her and then there are friends who show up for only a short time, and for a specific purpose. Both friend groups are blessings and regardless of the friend label, both groups should be appreciated, valued, and protected. The most sincere and authentic way to appreciate, value, and protect my friendships is to be the type of friend I want to have. I aspire to be one who loves unconditionally, listens actively, laughs authentically, and leans in, during life’s highs and lows.    

My work schedule was demanding and time-consuming, but I have made efforts to maintain and value my friendships through the years, including the relationship with my best friend, my husband. I have also started friendships in our “new” city of seven years that I am grateful for, but I have also had to regretfully say no to many friend moments, that sometimes arrived in the form of an inspired idea or gesture that could not be fulfilled due to professional obligations. Reflecting on many regretful “no” moments, I now realize a “yes” response may not have noticeably changed anything at work to anyone, except me, but it would have enhanced the overall quality and spontaneity of my life, and perhaps the lives of those I cherish.  

I have prioritized my job search and my story writing, but I have unintentionally prioritized connecting with friends too. Doing so has added more unexpected blessings along this journey of intentional change. Work is necessary. Creativity is a must. Creative work is divinely inspired and always the goal. All those gifts are enhanced when we have friends who can share both the trials and triumphs. Authentic friends are the result of living with intention and purpose, not just expecting and receiving. I was reminded of those truths this week. Sharing my job search experience with a few friends, stopping by a friend’s new school site for a campus tour, and scheduling time to go to the art museum today with another friend, reminded me how fortunate I am to have supportive people in my life who should hear more enthusiastic “yeses” instead of more regretful “nos.”

Copyright © 2019 Michele Lee Sefton. All Rights Reserved.

Your Conversation is None of My Business

Embracing the creative energy found in public spaces.

Learning to tune out, go within, and write privately in public spaces

One of the many changes I have made in my life over the last month is joining a writing group. The group of diverse writers share space and energy, more than story ideas or critiques. We meet in a large coffee/sandwich space every Friday midday for two hours. The space has ample tables to spread out our laptops, tablets, and other personal belongings, including our name cards, so that we can greet each other and create a writing community. The walls of the building we meet in are mostly glass, or they have large windows that let plenty of natural light in. The pulse of the shop beats with a constant stream of customers, and there is a pleasant hum of energy and uplifting music playing through the speakers overhead. There seems to be a core group of dedicated attendees, but otherwise the group varies from week to week, as people show up when they can, balancing their writing time with life demands. One writer I met during my first visit had just finished a book and was preparing to write and travel abroad.

Get ready to write …

After a fifteen-minute greet and get settled period, everyone begins working independently on their own project. Several writers are working on book projects, another is writing a script, others journal or blog. Even though we are not collaborating on writing projects, we are creating a group energy that I could not recreate on my own. We write for twenty minutes, rest for five, and repeat, during our two-hour time together. This timed routine of focused attention, followed by a short rest period is helpful and healthy and one I should have been following for years as a teacher, while grading endless papers.

I was a bit reluctant to join the group, because I did not believe that I could be productive in a coffee shop experience, with the distractions of movement and conversation stealing my attention. My hesitation in joining the group was also grounded in my reluctance to share my writing with strangers. Not that I had a writing project to share during my first visit, and I certainly wasn’t prepared to critique or have my work critiqued by another. Not yet, anyway. I had many reasons to not attend my first writing group, but I put my hesitation aside and joined the other writers five weeks ago. I have attended each week, with the exception of my week away in Tucson. I am so glad I did not let my reasons for writing in solitary confinement derail me from the experience of sharing space with other writers. I have learned many things about my writing self in a short time.

I have learned …

  • that I can tune out busy-ness around me and tune into my inner thoughts and actually complete a coherent sentence.
  • how much I enjoy being in the presence of others who share the common goal of putting their thoughts on paper, regardless of what each final writing purpose or project might look like.    
  • how important group accountability is for my growth. Knowing I am connected to a group of writers raises my accountability and the likelihood that I will “show up” and get some work done.

My initial hesitation about being too distracted to write in a coffee shop was unfounded. To my surprise, I was able to type two pages of draft during my first visit and the experience left me energized, not depleted, as I had feared. I thought my only path to inspired ideas and creative writing had to take place in the quiet solitude of my home office. I was wrong. Perhaps my hasty judgments about my ideal writing space were based on my experience of trying to write or grade in a classroom alongside forty restless teenagers. It just did not happen, so I stopped trying. Even if my students were supposed to be quietly writing themselves, there were always a few distractions and I felt it my responsibility to supervise my class and not allow myself to be fully immersed in my own work. Their productivity and safety was my top priority and my writing tasks would have to wait until I had quiet time after school to focus without interruption. The writing tasks I was attempting to complete were related to my teaching responsibilities, but I felt it more important to be fully available and accessible for their needs-which were many and constant.

Of course, these responsibilities included grading, grading, and more grading. Too many times of being interrupted while trying to grade essays, research projects, or tests while my students were also working, caused me to restructure my grading routine. For the most part, it happened only after school, when I could read and comment on one sentence one time, versus having to reread and repeat, due to interruptions. My teaching philosophy and style did add to my workload and hours, but I have no regrets about being fully committed to my students’ progress. Now, it is my time. It is my time to write, express, and share and not worry about the group of teenagers talking over their lunch, or the group of seniors catching up over tea, or the toddler hitting the writer across from me with a Styrofoam sword brought from home (true story). The conversations and movements of others are theirs to share and no longer mine to manage.  

Copyright © 2019 Michele Lee Sefton. All Rights Reserved.