Saturday, January 30, 2016

Guest Blogger: Shelli O'Steen

[From 1976-1983, I taught English and directed plays at Holland Hall Upper School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was twenty-four and had negligible experience. I didn't know up from down about teaching, but during those years, a handful of students changed me irrevocably. Over three decades, one way or the other, they've found me. I recently invited them to become guest bloggers, reflecting on something about their high school selves.

Shelli was a member of The Class of 1984 and drew the short straw when she landed in my English seminar along with eleven boys. To her credit, she held her own, but I thought about her constantly. What did we do to support quiet, capable girls? It's now a chicken-and-egg puzzle to recall every day there, but she reminded me about my How To speech assignment that required showing a process. Shelli demonstrated how to sew on a button. So instead of renting or rummaging all our play costumes, I let kids sew some of them. A colleague brought her portable machine, and skillful girls (and a few curious boys) stitched away in my office, creating the time-honored bonds of a quilting bee. Shelli was a shining star. Then when my book was published, she was the first to volunteer social media help when I was still too inexperienced to know I needed it.]


In high school I met a bunch of people with more money than me.  I met a bunch of people with better bodies and more athletic ability than I had.  I met people from all over the world.  I always felt I needed to catch up.  I always felt inadequate.  There were many times I did the bare minimum to get by, not realizing at the time I was shooting myself in the foot.  Be the best you that you can be.  Suit up and show up for your life.  There is no one exactly like you.  Write down your dreams and then plan out how to make them happen.  Do not get sidetracked by someone else's dream looking better.  If you find out you do not want what you thought you wanted, that is ok.  Keep two lists.  A bucket list of experiences that you want to try and a gratitude list for all the wonderful things you have experienced thus far.  Both will help you make good decisions.

What I learned in high school:

Know where the information is coming from and what their biases are. Learn statistics: without math you can be lead to believe nonsense that parades as fact from people who want you to believe them. Letters after someone's name only mean something if you know where they earned or bought those letters. Find out how to find experts in what you want to know. The Internet is not a source. Oxford is better than the local junior college. Look up the footnotes. If it does not have footnotes, question its veracity.

Read primary source material. Textbooks have biases. They may be a good gateway into a subject, but they are out of date by the time they are printed. If you doubt this, go talk to a doctor. Do you want one who reads the latest research or displays their dusty textbooks in their office? Read documents form the time period. Do not trust the news to give you the whole story on anything. Ask questions.

Find out if your teacher or professor has a bias that effects the subject they teach. Having come close to failing both a history class and a math class because I argued with professor bias, I can tell you it is not worth it. A few questions of library staff or department secretaries can save your grade, your time, and your sanity. Not all people with initials behind their name are interested in further learning. No amount of formal logic or facts will defeat someone who is entrenched in their way of doing things.

Faith is a tricky thing. You can not argue with belief without reason. Tread lightly and file away that information for the future. Belief that does not impact action is just another bias. Any faith worth having leads to change in behavior. Appreciate the faith of others, while learning as much as possible about the faith of your family, if they have one. Remain open minded to the possibilities. I learned that others were more certain of their view of God than I was in high school, which helped some to make better decisions than I did, but lead some to desperation when their life did not measure up to expectations they had of life based on their faith. Know that there are many faith paths and it is likely that if there is a God, there is more than one path available to you.

When considering what to wear experiment. I chose poorly at times and it did not kill me. Now I pick comfort over glamour, quality over quantity or label. Beautiful shoes you can not run in or get wet are a bad idea. Ask a sales person or friend to take a picture of you in a new garment sitting, standing, picking up a pencil from the floor, front and back.  Have them hold the item and go have a soda or coffee and look at pics in another light. You will save hundreds of dollars. Wear clothes that fit your body and what you want to be doing. Wear colors that make you happy. Learn how to take care of the clothes you have, which may impact what kind of clothes you choose. I learned that I like natural fibers I can wash at home and how to sew a quick costume when I wanted to be Snow White. People with money buy expensive quality shoes and plain clothes, people who do not come from money waste money on labels and flashy items.

Hair grows back. Cut it, color it, let it grow, shave it off. Everyone has a school picture that looks funny when they are 50. It is no big deal. I learned I preferred hair styles that required no effort on my part.

Wait to get tattoos or more than traditional one tiny hole per ear piercings until you are at least 25. My husband got a tattoo at 40. He was old enough to know what he wanted, smart enough to find someone who was good enough to do it, and had disposable income to afford it. You don't have to wait till 40, but you should know who you are and whom you want to be before permanent cosmetic change that could impact your ability to get a job and how others interact with you. I personally recommend knowing the law in your state about infectious disease control and your provider's compliance with that law.  If your state lacks such laws, go somewhere else to have it done. Hepatitis C and B can live almost a week outside the body and are much smaller viruses than HIV, they kill people too.

If you hear the same thing from multiple sources, it is time to consider it. Think of it as the universe trying to tell you something.

Do not do anything you would be ashamed of your parents knowing about or being on the billboard across from school. Social media lasts in ways you can not imagine. If you do not believe me, there are plenty of people in the world who spend all day looking for skeletons in closets for people who pay them and just because they find it fun.  Be the person who knows your boss paid half a year's salary to get out of a DUI conviction, not that boss. Have fun, but know where your boundaries are and that cameras are everywhere.

Travel.  As far and wide as you can afford.  People live differently all over the world, including next door. Try new food, new music, new crafts, new sports. The more new things you do and learn the better your brain works. It is ok to not know something, ask the local people for information. The Internet is a good place to research gestures or phrases that mean something you do not want to say before you go. I now live in Macon, Georgia, where "bless your heart" usually means you have been told where to go by a polite southerner. Knowing this alone can help you realize you have made someone mad or that they think you are crazy and wrong. Knowing colloquial sayings like this gives you the opportunity to improve your interactions with others.

The most important things in picking a college are cost of attendance after scholarships, location, and how many students end up graduating. College debt without a degree is overwhelming.  Ask how many graduates are employed in their field of choice 6 months after graduating. If they do not know, they do not care. Living in the dorm is great, but if you have to live at home to avoid debt, it may be worth it. Being debt free lets you choose what you want to do for a living and gives you the option of continuing your education to improve your future opportunities. Go to school as long as you can go for free, do not rack up debt that you can not repay comfortably. I do not make a living wage, but my spouse does. If I was the only person working I would have to do something less fun and more financially rewarding. Best case scenario, you can get paid to do something you love. I have not found that, but know many who have, including my spouse.

Volunteer. You learn more about what you want to do with your life and what you don't want to do. You get to go to bed grateful. You get references for future paying jobs. If you hate the volunteer job, tell your supervisor as they might have something more to your liking. If they don't, look for a place more suited to your preferences. Show up on time and treat it like a paying job and you will not regret it.

Be at home in your skin. It is never as bad as it seems from the inside. Ignore those who judge you, but seek a second opinion if it is a doctor telling you something unflattering. If you know something does not feel right, seek a second opinion if the first doctor tells you it is nothing.

Try new things. No one is an expert until they have done something thousands of times. You will never know if you like something if you don't try it. Go to the theater, the opera, foreign films, documentaries, square dances, art galleries, soccer games, car races, factories, banks, courthouses, libraries, keep going to new places. See what happens there. Ask questions, observe, learn about the world. Watch a meteor shower, make a snow angel.  Make memories.

Ask those with experience. Elders, whether related to you or not, know stuff you do not. They may not look like they do. Ask them what they are proud of in their life. Ask them to name three skills they have that they have not shared with you. Ask them what event in history shaped their life the most. I always find out things I wish I had known about my elders when I ask, but many do not volunteer information unless asked. If you are lucky enough to meet someone with tattooed numbers on their arm, ask the impact on their lives that involuntary tattoo had. There are few holocaust survivors left, but every one I have met has a great story. Tragedy shapes us all and how you respond, what you choose after tragedy, is important.  You get to choose how you react to anything in your life;  you do not get to choose a lot of the things that happen to you.

Life is short.  Carpe diem.


Shelli has spent over a decade helping those ravaged by addiction. She still does not know what she wants to be when she grows up, despite having raised three children. She lives in Macon, Georgia with her husband, who has patience with her unprofitable artistic and community endeavors and probably wishes she had studied finance. In 2011 Shelli survived cancer. 

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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

About That Owl

The story about that owl from my previous post didn't stop with his attic escape.

But for weeks I wish it had. I got overly attached, which is what I do.

He returned regularly for a while. I liked his scratching outside the window. I appreciated his evening hoots. I marveled at his enormous wingspan whenever I saw him glide over the house. He became more than a rare snowy owl sighting.

He became my owl.

I'm forever looking for metaphors or tokens that, strung together by my imagination, indicate goodness surrounds me and that a wonderful change is in the air.

My fluffy bliss was short lived, however. I started worrying about where he'd live once he couldn't get back in our roof. Given half a chance, I'd have built a tiny tree house and outfitted it with an upholstered chair and end table for his teacup. I'd needlepoint him a pillow with something appropriate from Thoreau. I'd hope for Winnie-the-Pooh to become his best friend. I played out adorable, impossible scenarios.

Then one day I drove down a different street from my usual route and saw something fluffy and white balled up at the curb near our house. My heart sank. For years I've willed myself to look away from road kill. The bodies of countless squirrels and cats and deer haunt me. I always whisper a prayer for each, but I was too distraught over this one: my owl.

Hours later I was still upset. I decided to return to be certain it was my owl. Then I'd ask Cliff to retrieve him for burial in our garden. A miraculous bird deserved that.

I drove to the spot. Nothing. I turned around and went by again. Not a trace.

Most people would shrug and move on. Not me. I worried for days. I agonized to Cliff, who patiently reminded me that the owl was never my responsibility to protect and added, "If that's what you actually saw in the street." I was convinced I had. It was the worst possible omen--the Ohio equivalent to a Greek soothsayer, tragically predicting darkness for my remaining days.

Try as they might, Cliff and Maggie were unable to talk me down. My friend Colin, who had been a biology/poetry major, made some headway. First he pointed out the rarity of owl road kill. "They're too smart," he wrote. Then he moved from reality into literary territory and suggested I consider the owl as a welcoming presence, there to greet us for our good housing choice. Work accomplished, he moved on.

So it dawned on me finally. Maybe the fluffy white object, that I failed to examine closely, had been the winter muffler of someone visiting the museum. Realizing they'd dropped it, they returned for it before I drove by again. When I tried this theory on Cliff, he said, "And there were no feathers in the street, were there?"

Given the space, changing the way I think about something is that simple. Someone famous (Twain? Shakespeare?) is credited with this truth: "Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so." Too much imagination is not necessarily a gift.

So I'm holding onto the long odds here.

I did indeed experience something wild that traditionally lives in the Arctic Circle, a far cry from the Midwest. He could have rested anywhere, but he stopped at our house, a next-to-impossible visitor who slept in our rafters. He left two feathers behind for me.

That alone ought to be goodness enough to last my lifetime.  And a true sign that wonderful change is always in the air.

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