Mommy Self-Care Tip: Psoas Release

All creative people, all people who read and write, need to take care of their bodies for maximum concentration. Since becoming a mom, and as a person who struggles with bipolar II disorder, it is essential for me to do the best to take care of my body – just to be able to think straight and focus on the essence of my being – creativity expressed through writing, movement, music, and cooking. Working with my hands and brains requires a will to maintain a healthy body, mind, and spirit.

So here’s a tip from me to you:

If you are a mom who is constantly lifting heavy toddlers, this video from Yoga with Adriene is really the best. Somehow it released all the tension from where my body is tight from all the lifting and repetitive motion of pushing my kids on the swings, helping them with monkey bars, carrying two kids at a time on the way back from a walk. I felt truly relaxed for the first time in years – it’s only twenty minutes, but it made a difference in my day, and it inspired me to write a quick blog post without worrying about too much length and perfection.

I Am a Writer. Writing as a Mother of Three Under Three

Happy Halloween Eve, Dear Reader!

Being a writer has been a lifelong dream for me. As far back as I can remember, I always had my pens, pencils, and notebooks at hand. When I was 7,  I was paid a dollar in cash from the Howard County Times to publish my poem “Camp”. In high school and college, I had editorial positions on the student newspaper, and I also wrote a few interviews for the music pages of the Weekly Dig back in the early 2000s. I started this blog in 2012, and I have written steadily online since then.  So why have I only recently called myself a writer?

As a mother of 2-year-old twins and a 1-year-old, my brain and my body operate much differently than they did before I was a parent. I have to sprint through my writing because I know that I will be interrupted sooner rather than later. (My kids burst into the kitchen within seconds of me writing that sentence.) Where I once had several hours each weekend available to read and write, I now have perhaps an hour or two. I collapse into bed each night and much earlier than I did in my non-parenting days. When my children go down, I go down shortly after. On Friday night, I was asleep by 7:45 pm. And so, I need to tell the world I am a writer to hold on tightly to this now-essential piece of my identity.

This blog is now called “Literacy Changes Everything!”.  This title reflects my life as it is at present. With less free time and much less extra spending money, my physical life exists within the handful of miles between home and work. Reading and writing are my primary sources of escape to a world beyond the city limits. My twice-a-week visits to the library, my 5 a.m. morning pages, and my newly-minted designated creative space (more on this later) cost nothing, yet they mean the world to me as a much-needed outlet from my responsibilities as a teacher and as a mother. Best of all, my daughters have begun to imitate my writing habits, which makes me feel l’m not less-of-a-mother for taking the time for what I love to do.

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Like Mother, Like Daughters: My three little ones share my writing life with me.

It is my hope to write more and more often, and I will be sharing our family’s favorite picture books and literacy-oriented activities, in addition to musings about my own reading and writing life and my role as an educator in the Boston Public Schools.

I look forward to sharing my tiny corner of the world.

Best, Jenn

Rising Star: Quddus Rodrigues, Teen Civil Rights Advocate and Creative Writer

I am extremely proud of Quddus Rodrigues, who has been my student for the past three years at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School. I have always known Quddus to be a thoughtful and creative person who expresses a deep concern for those around him, and it has been to my absolute delight that his talents have been recognized both locally and internationally in recent months. I will now present you with a photo essay of  Quddus’ life as a rising star in both the civil rights and creative writing arenas.

Thursday, July 11, 2013: Preparation for Malala Yousafzai Documentary

Quddus prepares for his interview for a Malala Yousafzai documentary for NHK television.

Quddus prepares for his interview for a Malala Yousafzai documentary for NHK television.

In late June, I was contacted by Yoshiko Uno-Flukes, a UK-based researcher for NHK television, a respected Japanese station. NHK is producing a documentary film on Malala Yousafzai, to whom my students had written letters in October after she was attacked by the Taliban on her way to school. They were especially interested in Quddus’ letter. Last Thursday, Quddus and I prepared for the interview for several hours by reviewing the events and responses to Malala’s shooting and recovery, including the well-written piece “Girls Who Risk their Lives for Education“. The above photo shows Quddus writing his responses to interview questions provided by NHK while referencing an article.

Friday, July 12, 2013: Grub Street Orientation

Quddus and his mother, Filomena, attend his Young Adult Writing Program Orientation at Grub Street.

Quddus and his mother, Filomena, attend his Young Adult Writing Program Orientation at Grub Street.

Quddus poses with the famous Grub Street red typewriter.

Quddus poses with the famous Grub Street red typewriter.

Quddus and Filomena enjoy post-orientation sushi, shrimp-fried rice, and Boba tea in Chinatown after the orientation.

Quddus and Filomena enjoy post-orientation sushi, shrimp-fried rice, and Boba tea in Chinatown after the orientation.

In April, at the suggestion of my colleague and dear friend, author and educator Paula Leoni, Quddus completed his application for the prestigious Grub Street Young Adult Writing Program Summer Teen Fellowship. This program awards young adult writers with a stipend and provides them with a three week intensive writing experience that includes instruction from and meetings with published authors. Click here to read his application. The piece “Mystery Mansions of Madness” will have you in stitches!

Last Friday, Quddus, his mother, and Paula attended the orientation at Grub Street, located in the Steinway building at the edge of Boston’s theater district. Afterwards, they enjoyed a sushi dinner at which Quddus apparently tricked his mother into eating a mouthful of wasabi. Luckily, laughter quickly ensued! 

Special thanks to Paula Leoni for providing the photographs.

Saturday, July 13, 2013: The Making of a Malala Documentary

The NHK film crew captures Quddus and his mother strolling through their Dorchester Center neighborhood.

The NHK film crew captures Quddus and his mother strolling through their Dorchester Center neighborhood.

The NHK film crew captures the art of thinking, writing, and reflecting.

The NHK film crew captures the art of thinking, writing, and reflecting.

The NHK crew interview Quddus.

The NHK crew interview Quddus.

NHK records Quddus' reactions to Malala Yousafzai's recent speech at the United Nations on her 16th birthday.

NHK records Quddus’ reactions to Malala Yousafzai’s recent speech at the United Nations on her 16th birthday.

The NHK crew records Quddus' verbal reflections on Malala's speech.

The NHK crew records Quddus’ verbal reflections on Malala’s speech.

I was so impressed that NHK traveled all the way from New York City on a hot Saturday afternoon to interview Quddus. He is certainly a very interesting young man.  I cannot wait to see the documentary.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Quddus grabs a caramel Frappuccino at Starbucks before the Grub Street orientation. He complained, "It's so much work being famous! You always have to have your picture taken!" HA!

Quddus grabs a caramel Frappuccino at Starbucks before the Grub Street orientation. He complained, “It’s so much work being famous! You always have to have your picture taken!” HA!

Waking Up

Quddus poses with his fellow writers on the first day of the Young Adult Writing Program.

I was so excited to receive the following text from Quddus on Monday afternoon: “Had fun made friends had a great time”. I cannot wait to attend the final celebration. I’m sure we will all be hearing so much more about Quddus, a rising star on a bright path. We are all so proud!

Ongoing Book Review: The Artist’s Way By Julia Cameron, Week 3

Like most worthwhile endeavors, The Artist’s Way does not get easier as it goes along; it becomes more difficult as the novelty of taking time for one’s self and one’s thoughts wears off, and the challenge of getting to really know and live with the self begins.

It took me two weeks in real time to get through the third week of The Artist’s Way.

Morning pages are not an obstacle for me – I continue to write about dreams, and then about whatever comes to mind. Increasingly, these thoughts have been more and more about work-related and school-related matters. I think it is healthy for me to notice when my mind becomes overly focused on that particular area of my life, rather than to become entangled in that one particular domain without noticing, and then wondering why I feel burnt out.

The Artist's Way. All Day.

The real block I faced in the third week was coming up with a suitable artist’s date. Nothing seemed worthwhile. I kept brainstorming, but none of my ideas seemed worthy enough. I was overanalyzing the simple act of spending some time alone doing something different than I would ordinarily do. I had convinced myself that I needed to come up with a really grand idea. Well,I think that was just a procrastination.

Two nights ago, I became frustrated that I hadn’t yet completed my date. I got in my car and drove, putting on an old song I used to listen to repeatedly in college. The location of Trident Booksellers and Cafe popped into my head after being in the car for less than three minutes, so I drove there. Normally, I would avoid this area of town at night if I was alone. It was unsafe to take the train there by myself, and I didn’t know where to park. But on this night, I just went with it, and, behold, I found a parking spot, spent some time browsing and some time writing, some time drinking some Chai Spice tea, and so it went. And then it was over and behind me. I did it.

The third chapter of The Artist’s Way is titled “Recovering a Sense of Power”, and this refers to examining one’s limits as well as one’s ability to keep an open mind.

The chapter discusses the themes of anger, synchronicity, shame, and criticism. Anger and synchronicity are useful tools that we should attend to rather than dismiss, while shame and criticism are often destructive tools that we amplify and overemphasize. The writing exercises in the chapter examine childhood environment, traits, and accomplishments, as well as friendships and admirations. It is a chapter that will have you check your reality, and it is hard work. If you choose to continue The Artist’s Way, this chapter may leave you feeling raw and vulnerable, but you will also feel stronger and more in touch with yourself.

Ongoing Book Review: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Week 2

Before beginning The Artist’s Way, I would wake up and instantly reach for my laptop. First e-mail account. Second e-mail account. Third e-mail account. New York Times. I would start the day by drowning my brain in communication with others. Well, The Artist’s Way has changed all that, and now the first thing I do is slide out the drawer of the bedside table to pull out my gold and red Chinese print fabric-covered journal and my InkJoy retractable pen and write down three pages of whatever comes into my mind. Since I am sleeping well for the first time in years, I actually have dreams that I can remember. I usually begin by writing those down, and then I write down whatever else is on my mind. Rather than infecting my brain will e-mails and advertisements, I am beginning the day by slowly massaging the thoughts from my mind and onto paper. It feels great.

Week Two focuses on rediscovering one’s own identity.

The second week of The Artist’s Way focuses on recovering a sense of identity through exploring self-definition, creating boundaries, and exploring one’s personal needs, desires, and interests. Ironically, these themes are something that I periodically I focus on with my own students, yet it never occurred to me to take the time to examine them for myself.

On page 43, Cameron states: “As blocked creatives, we focus not on our responsibilities to ourselves, but on our responsibilities to others. We tend to think our behavior makes us good people. It doesn’t. It makes us frustrated people.”

Prioritizing taking care of others over self-care is an extremely easy trap for those in the teaching profession or any human services career for that matter. In my teaching career, I feel an extremely compelling passion for and responsibility to my students and their families. However, there came a point last year when I began to felt burnt out or, as one friend said, like I’d been put through “the old-time, old-fashioned wringer”. I had spent nearly a decade putting my responsibilities to others over spending time taking care of myself, and I found myself feeling short-tempered, moody, and exhausted. Interestingly, since focusing more attention on myself, I feel more clear-minded, energetic, and self-assured, and I am better able to assist others with my stronger sense of self.

In this chapter, Cameron carefully cautions the reader to be wary of “poisonous playmates” and “crazy makers” in one’s life. She encourages the recovering artist’s to avoid those who diminish our self-worth and increase our skepticism and self-doubt. And she asks the provocative question: “What creative work are you trying to block by staying involved [with those who make you feel terrible and insane]?”

The Endangered Art of Browsing

A few years ago, I attended a meeting at the newly renovated local branch of the library. I arrived early in order to give myself some time to browse. The building, where I had spent many a meandering Saturday , had been closed for some time due to the renovation, and the formerly musty and carpeted interior had been transformed into an airy modern space with brightly-colored furniture and slick tile floors. But something about the new building made me uneasy. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I stared at the shelves, racking my brain to locate the source of my discomfort. And then it hit me.

Where are all the books?

Browsing results in unimaginable possibilities.

Browsing results in unimaginable possibilities.

It wasn’t the new shelves or the brighter space. There were really and truly disturbingly fewer books occupying the shelves. I felt as if I had arrived home to find my house redecorated and my family members missing. The old collection hadn’t been replaced with newer volumes; there were just a sparse number gracing the shelves. But this was a library – a place for books – it was not supposed to be  just some beacon of modern architecture with a couple of novels dusting the shelves.

I attended the meeting in the “community” room, and I sat uncomfortably in the hard plastic chairs that had replaced the wooden and chipped seats of yore. I tapped my foot on the floor beneath my seat impatiently as I waited for the moment when I could ask the question that was pounding on my brain.

When I finally inquired about the missing pieces of the collection, the woman who served as the central library’s representative made a startling revelation:

“When we packed the books, we didn’t seal the boxes properly. So, water leaked in and damaged the books. We had to discard them.”

I asked,”So, when will you replace them?”

“Oh no, we won’t be doing that. We are adding to our digital collection anyway, so people will have more access to e-books. The branches will eventually be open less hours due to budget, but we are doing so much with our electronic collection…”

Her voice trailed off in the background of my mind. All I could see was red, and all I could hear was static. Well, how the *beep* am I supposed to browse here now?

The result of browsing through magazines while waiting at the doctor's office.

The result of browsing through magazines while waiting at the doctor’s office.

I am not a technophobe, nor am I a stranger to biblio-centric social networking or from ordering books online, but browsing is an essential part of my life. I can never spend just a few minutes in a library or bookstore. The shelves of books pull me in like a magnet, and I need to spend a little time visiting at each one.

On Saturday, I lost myself for an hour or so, existing only within the confines of Music Espresso, the New England Conservatory Bookstore. My fingers pushed back one piece of sheet music after another, as I searched for the particular piece I wanted.  I prefer the editions with thicker, darker covers with opaque cascades of notation printed on buttery yellow paper, a hint of the past from whence the music came.

After locating the two pieces for which I had searched in the bins sorted by composer, I crossed the room to a taller shelf containing novel-length books about the practice of music. The Art of the Courtesan. Hmm, I never thought such a book would have existed.  I took out my iPhone and opened up the camera app.Click. Capture that title, gonna share it with my husband. I turned the back of the  book over to read the summary. The Phonetic Alphabet for SingersWhat? Is there such a thing? That’s fascinating…I want to find out more about that. I thumbed the pages, enjoying the flip-book effect of quickly viewing the different phonetic symbols. Click. The Alexander Technique. Oh, I totally forgot about that. I haven’t thought about the Alexander technique since college. I should look into that again.

An idea I had forgotten, rediscovered through browsing.

An idea I had forgotten, rediscovered through browsing.

There is a very specific delight in finding a book, an idea, that you had never imagined would have existed. Recommendations based on previous reading are useless to the browser’s curiousity. I liked The Diary of Anne Frank because of the earnestness of the writing, because it’s a peek into someone else’s world. I don’t necessarily want to read about every book ever written teenagers in the Holocaust. I already have a great Italian cookbook in The Silver Spoon; why would I need three more books on the same subject? These types of recommendations are useful for the aspiring expert, but they are exhausting for the established thinker who craves new ideas and deeply hungers to become lost in thought rather than engaged in some neurotic fact-finding mission.

Interacting with a book through browsing allows you to experience the gestalt of the book, to view the cover, the summary at the back, to experience the true volume of the book’s surface, to thumb through with the soft light reflecting off the pages. It is a tactile and sensory experiences: the pages breathe as you turn them, the cover art may attract you to a topic you had never thought about before, the delicate steps you take from section to section, cradling books of interest in your arms while enjoying the quiet tranquility that naturally occurs in a library or a book store.

An idea I hadn't know had existed, a browser's gold.

An idea I hadn’t know had existed, a browser’s gold.

A digital collection, while offering many benefits for research, cannot provide the same sensuality as an afternoon spent between the shelves full of glorious paper books of all colors, shapes, and sizes, adorned with images, ripe to the touch and full of juicy new ideas just waiting to be explored. The journey of browsing offers no pre-planned destination; it is an adventure into the land of ideas.

Ongoing Book Review: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Week 1

Mom: What did you do today?

Jenn: Well, I went on a date with myself, my artistic self.

Mom: (knowingly) And how did that go?

Jenn: Well, I got dressed up. I wore the shirt that you gave me for Christmas. I went to a café by myself, and I downloaded piano music and listened to it for an hour.  I think we’ll probably go out together again. (laughs)

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Self-dating, which the author calls “Artist Dates”, comprises just one of the unique tasks that Julia Cameron suggests will heighten the readers’ creativity and build their relationships with their creative selves . The Artist’s Way consists of 12 weeks of creativity courses, each with a discussion followed by a series of ten short tasks based on that weeks concept. For example, week 1, titled “Recovering a Sense of Safety” discusses negative self-talk regarding one’s own artistic endeavors as well as examining relationships that have either repressed or championed creativity throughout one’s life time.

In addition to the ten tasks, Cameron’s course also requires a commitment to both daily Morning Pages, three pages of long-hand free writing composed first thing after awakening, and weekly Artist Dates – spending time with one’s self for a couple of hours each week doing something creative.

Thus far, the program is encouraging me to pursue the creative work that I enjoy – writing, playing piano, and cooking – as the author points out that unless we ourselves are doing these creative acts, they will not happen.  She also highlights the importance of letting ourselves “try it to see what happens”. Although I do this with my own students, I often neglect to provide this sort of encouragement for myself. I have also been practicing yoga daily during this time. Between the tasks in Cameron’s book and the yoga classes, I have a sense of peace and my mind has been cleaned enough to allow creative thoughts to enter and creative tasks to occur.

For example, a few days ago, I practiced piano for about three hours straight without even realizing where the time had gone. I faced a difficult piece that I have wanted to play for the past twenty years – this piece has literally plagued me and nearly whispered to me: “You are not technically proficient enough to master me.” I even remember that a friend’s sister, two years younger that me, played this piece in a concert in high school. When I asked her if it was difficult, she said,”It’s not that hard.” As if my question was totally ludicrous. Nevertheless, I have been fearlessly practicing it this week, with many wrong notes, and I feel like I am confronting a demon.

At the end of each chapter, check-in questions encourage the reader to assess whether or not they have completed the week’s tasks, Morning Pages, and Artist Date. Although I have never been much of a person for New Year’s Resolutions (I felt affirmed when my yoga teacher offered that the resolutions we make often do not reflect and in fact actively work against who we are meant to be in this lifetime), this book does seem fitting for the time of renewal and rebirth that occurs at the start of a new year.

Citation: Cameron, J. (2002). The artist’s way. Tarcher.

Note: This book came out over a decade ago; I encountered it on the shelf at the library while browsing. I would expect that many libraries nationwide carry copies. Try before you buy!