lenten journal: hey, that’s me!


    This is one of those mornings where I have to write like the wind.

    Yesterday was errand day: grocery shopping, filling up the car with gas, filling my Celexa prescription, and finding a birthday present for our friend Todd – which means a trip to Borders. I took Parker Palmer with me as I planned to take an hour out of the day to sit in the coffee shop and read.

    As I was looking for Todd’s present, I picked up a book and read the questions on the cover:

    Don’t know what to do with your life?
    Are you drawn to so many things you can’t choose one?
    Do you ache to find the right direction so you can settle down and just do it?
    If this is you, you should . . . REFUSE TO CHOOSE!
    (I half expected the words following the ellipsis to be . . . buy this book, Milton!)

    I did buy the book, but before I did I spent some time with it over coffee. The author is Barbara Sher (a new name to me), who appears to be one of those PBS self-help kind of folks (John Bradshaw, et al.), or at least that’s what I gleaned from her web site. Once I started reading, I was less concerned with her credentials and more taken by what she was saying.

    According to her, I’m a Scanner.

    I’m assuming Sher is not an Eighties movie buff, or she might have picked a different name fo the type of person she is describing, but at the risk of being taken for an alien, I found myself in her book. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to know as much as could about everything, wanted to take a shot at most everything, and was afraid I was going to miss something while I was doing something else. As a result, I do have a working knowledge of a bunch of different things, live in a house of a variety of almost finished projects, and am a fairly reliable repository of fairly useless facts and information.

    Stacked around me on the shelves and tables in my office/studio are candle molds, jewelry-making equipment, dry pigments for my iconography, boxes of paper scraps for my card and collage making, cookbooks, notebooks filled with yet to be songs and poems, the draft of my novel, my guitar, and a bunch of books I have yet to engage on everything from aardvarks to Armageddon. (I went for the alliteration; actually, those are two subjects I haven’t covered.)

    I love being interested in lots of things and that same love has a nasty scorpion’s tale that stings with guilt and regret because I’m so easily pulled by tangents and possibilities that I’m not a good finisher. One of the exercises Sher has in her book is to draw a map of your house and go through each room making a list of the unfinished projects in that room. I read it and thought she was adding a new layer to hell. I didn’t even have to finish the paragraph, much less start a drawing, before my mind was taking a virtual tour of our kitchen (caulking behind the sink, closet), the laundry room (replace ceiling), the bathrooms (more caulking), our bedroom (finish painting stars on the ceiling, hang knick-knacks), my office (organize!), and the back yard (finish the fence, clean up the driveway). Every space we own has something in it to remind me I’m not good at finishing.

    Fair enough, says Sher, let’s look at it another way. I’m good at starting things. That’s where the payoff is for me. I have started a bunch of things because I’m interested and I like doing a bunch of things. Now the list of What Has Yet To Be Done is overwhelming and disheartening, so I move to start something else, rather than slog through the to do list. Drawing the map of the house and coming to terms with what there is to do and who I am are her ways of both validating and confronting me as a scanner. I had never thought of my life in terms of the payoff for me being in the starting of the thing rather than the finishing. When something is finally finished, I think I feel more grief than I do a sense of accomplishment. It’s over. I won’t get to feel the rush of the beginning because I’ve written the ending.

    I’ve never looked at my life that way before.

    According to the dust jacket, Sher is going to teach me:

    what’s behind my “hit and run obsessions” (there’s a good reason for them, she says);
    when (and how) to finish what I start;
    how to do everything I love;
    what type of Scanner I am (and which tools I need to do my very best work).

    All that for $25. What a deal.

    One of my attractions to working with young people has always been reaching out to the kids on the fringe: the ones who keep to themselves, enjoy being alternative, or just don’t fit the mold. When I was teaching high school in Winchester, there was boy in my tenth grade class who had enough energy for everyone in the room trapped in his body. He was always buoyant and he was always talkative. One day he came into class and said, “Mr B-C, is it OK if I stand on my head?”

    It was about three minutes until the bell rang to start class, so I told him he could do it until the bell rang. He stood on his head, back against the wall for those three minutes and then took his seat with the others when class started. Other days, as I was taking attendance he would ask if he could tell a joke.

    “Think about it for a minute,” I would answer. “Is it appropriate for class?”

    Some days he would smile and say, “I guess I’ll pass today.” Other times he would give us all a chuckle. His best friend in the class was a terribly depressed and bitter kid who his polar opposite. Once we got past the opening burst of energy, my head-stander would settle in beside his friend. He proved to have enough hope for both of them. I’m convinced the depressed kid lived through high school because of the care of his more energetic chum. When it came time for graduation two years later, I told my joke-teller how I admired the quality of his friendship over the years and how I would remember him for his head stands and his big heart.

    He was a C student who graduated at the top of his class, as far as I’m concerned.

    I thought of him as I read Sher’s questions. And then I thought about doing a head stand in the coffee shop, or at least telling the barista a joke.



    1. Milton,

      From a fellow “scanner” (who wades hip-deep through half-finished projects), I wanted to thank you for letting me listen in to your conversations here. It helps to hear voices that resonate, as well as inform and educate. My hat is off to you, sir, and I would love to hear a joke.

      Graceful peace be with you.

    2. I remember my dad wasting money on things that I was interested in for a brief moment. I went through old model cars that were half built, books never read, and baseball cards never opened.

      I feel the same about finishing a project. It’s hard to finish because then you have to find something else to look forward to.

    3. My projects are becoming fewer but more enjoyable. I’ve crossed a lot of things off the list in the past 5 years, both done and undone.

      Old GE console radio restoration? Not financially feasible to pay someone; not enough hours for me to do it. To the recycling center you go!

      I reward myself for letting some things go. “NOW I can forget about that one. What else can I clear out, so I can make time to _________?” I know there will always be something else to catch my interest.

      Gardening is another ongoing lesson in focusing on now and letting go of things. To everything there is a season, and all that.

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