Words Fail Me

I come from a family full of stage folk.

I’m pretty sure that somewhere on my birth certificate it states that I wasn’t born in a hospital but rather on the jutting apron of a stage.

I was raised flossing my teeth on the grimy ropes of the house curtains. I learned to crawl up on some poorly constructed way over-budget theater catwalk. And I probably believed for years that whomever was hired as the followspot operator for the sun should be readily fired, as he was doing an abominable job whenever I was outside and in need of illumination.

There was the stage, and then there was … well, I heard there was other stuff, but I wasn’t sure what it all was or looked like.

Whether drawing a bow across an instrument shaped like a violin but surely in truth a tortured cat, skipping across eighty-eight keys with the hope and a prayer that some of them will be the right ones, and a few in the right order, or clutching a microphone and praying it can cover the intense alarm on my face as I gaze out over a crowd of hundreds, it didn’t matter that I left my lunch in a bucket backstage before stepping into that lonely pool of light. What mattered was that minutes later I realized that I’d left my heart out on that dais and that I was going to have to go back there to get it.

Because I wanted to do it all over again.

I’m not sure if the real thrill came from the adrenaline rush of standing in front of showgoers and hearing them applaud at the end of the number or the stress release of realizing that I made it through to the end, had not fainted in the middle of my performance, and no one had to rush up on stage and drag my limp body off into the wings.

It was always, always a possibility.

And the thing that created the most mammoth amount of nerve jangling? Going blank.

I’m going to guess that most folks have had this happen to them at least once in their lives. You forget someone’s name, all the facts you’d just crammed into your head the night before for the big test have suddenly vanished, maybe you arrive in a room and think, I’ve walked down into this cobwebbed, basement utility room for … what again?

And the consequences for these blunders can range from annoying to GPA torpedoing.

My vocation blunders were usually on the end of the spectrum marked “cringe-worthy.” That just went with the territory.

But thankfully, there were a boatload of tricks I’d learned over the years, ready to be shelled out at a moment’s notice, if my brain suddenly blew a fuse and all went dark.

Lose the thread in the middle of your fiddle solo? Just “accidentally” knock a peg and lose a string. Then give a nod to one of the guys in the band. They then take over while you just start clapping along and wait for a stage hand to slide you your spare Stradivarius.

Blow the choreography? Quick do the splits. Audiences love the splits. It’s both riveting and unsettling. And throw in some Travolta disco fever hand gestures. Pretty soon one of the other dancers is going to improvisationally pick you up and help pirouette you off the stage and out of the fray.

Forget the lyrics to your song? Point the mic to the audience and scream, “Sing along! Y’all know the words!”

Or step on the microphone’s cord and unplug it—or if it’s cordless, switch it off, and bang it on your hand like the battery’s gone dead. Send up looks of frustration to the sound booth at the back of the theater and shrug apologetically at the crowd.

There’s always something one can do to hide a misstep or mistake, and the more you do it, the more adroitly you grow at gracefully sliding around it.

But … what if the mistake is not you but your audience?

Yeah, sure, that’s a bit meta. But let me explain.

These days I no longer shuffle or sing or fiddle my way across a platform, I simply speak atop of it. I visit schools and libraries as an author determined to inspire middle school and high school kids to leap off the great precipice of possibility, wade through the wretched whirlpool of failure, and trudge down the precarious path of the Hero’s Journey just like their favorite characters.

I also encourage them to erect statues of all their school librarians.

But occasionally you get thrown a curveball you’ve never been thrown before—like arriving to give a talk to a bunch of people who were half the people you thought they’d be—not as in size, rather stature. As in, some of them were still busy forming eyelids and fingernails. One or two of them were definitely going to struggle with my talk mostly because talking was an incredibly fresh activity for them.

How could I deliver a message which was tailored to kids who were already prepping for their SATs when the true audience was still working on their ABCs?

I panicked. And it wasn’t pretty.

There was no mic to sabotage, no instrument to abjectly point to with regret—there wasn’t even a back door. And a back door is crucial if your excuse for not showing up when your name is called is that you heard cries for help out in the alley and rushed to aid the distressed and then rode along in the ambulance to make sure the paramedic had enough blood on hand because you happen to be O negative and the universal blood type.

I stood in front of these tiny preschool and elementary kids as they whirled in circles on their swivel chairs. Extra added bonus? The swivel chairs also had wheels.

My brain raced and squealed in a high-pitched hysteria: How do I rework and reword my ten minute tale of resilience about strong-willed and single-minded NASA scientists who had worked for fifteen years on one Mars rover project only to see a fat chunk of their life’s work come to a hugely crushing end because of some unforeseeable and miniscule error in math calculations?

So … there are these people who built a thing that went up—up to where the stars are, right? And this one thing—which took them a bazillion years to build—just went … boom? Right? Then these people gasped, hit the floor with their knees, ate a lot of ice cream, and then got up and said, “Let’s give her another go, Stanley!” Does that make sense? Cuz that’s what I’m telling you to do too.

Imagine this scenario—just with different subjects—on repeat somewhere about four or five times. Yeah, that was my talk.

I really thought I’d blown it. It was the wrong talk, to the wrong audience, with the right stuff, but the wrong time.

I made a tiny bow of my head and mumbled the end to a smattering of applause from the befuddled librarian and a few parents.

As I was packing up my things to slink out to my car, thinking I could wallow quietly in a pool of my lead balloon bomb, a mother and her small daughter came up to me. “We’d like to buy your book.”

I pulled back. “Really?”

“Yup,” the girl replied. “I’m going to read it … once I learn to read.”

I looked at the mother. “The main character is twice her age.”

“Not for long,” the little girl said.

I thought about my talk’s message of dealing with downfalls. You get in over your head, you make a mistake, you face failure in the eye. It happens. So get up, get going, start again. You go from can’t to can, couldn’t but want to, didn’t but will.

Life is not a stage, life is a series of stages.

This little girl got it. Shined a spotlight on it too. I started applauding, but that came across as a little weird.

So I just did the splits.

~Shelley

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Crashing and Burning; It Takes Practice

I think three of the most frightening and exciting words spoken together in the English language are: three, two, one.

And the space that comes right after it? The silence where we then announce the outcome? Talk about a pregnant pause. Talk about stress and hope and anticipation—and the new physical knowledge of the phrase gut twisting.

Sometimes you hear the word Liftoff!

Or Action! Or Go!

What nobody wants to hear is Three, two, one … uh oh.

But it happens. And it’s said. With a lot more regularity than many of us would believe—or admit to.

I think most of us regular folks can probably scare up a decent quote or two from marvelous, mind-blowing space moments, right? Things like:

“Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

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Or “That’s one small step for man …”

Or “Failure is not an option.”

Or is it?

The whole failure thing, I mean.

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Winston Churchill said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” I think the old British Bulldog would have loved to take a peek inside one of the many locations dedicated to our American aeronautics and aerospace research to see his words in action.

I’m talking about NASA, folks.

Space has long been an interest of mine. And parenting. I’m super dedicated to the act and art of parenting. Also writing. I can’t imagine my life without writing.

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But this is where I’ll stop with that whole list because any further and it’s going to sound like I’m generating some sort of online dating bio—and that is not where this essay is heading.

It’s mostly about space and parenting. The writing part is simply my way of communicating to your eyeballs the beautiful connection between the two.

And they are connected. Magically. And ordinarily.

Okay, so actually, my interests are space, and parenting, and writing … aaaand failure.

Although there is some bewitching halo that’s thrown over the beautiful bubble of someone’s great achievement, there is nothing sparkling or spellbinding about a person’s failure. When seen up close, it’s usually unsightly and has us cringing but unable to turn away. A lousy result is a big pile of rubble we tend to shove underneath the nearest sofa and not show our friends by outlining it on the floor with glitter.

Failure hurts. It’s distressing and insufferable. It is your demanding and troublesome Aunt Gladys showing up on your doorstep and expecting attention and accommodation forthwith.

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You cannot turn her away. She is there. Staring you down with two leather satchels in her hands expecting a cushioned chair and a hot cup of tea immediately. The only thing one can do in a situation like this is …

Prepare for it.

NASA rehearses for surprise Aunt Gladys visits relentlessly and gravely. When every single penny of your budget is scrutinized, questioned, and arm-wrestled for and, more important, when human lives are a big wager in the game, you cannot afford a whoopsie poo from out of the blue.

Last month, I went to pick up my daughter from her summer internship with God—or rather, her god—at one of NASA’s facilities. She was building space rockets—well at least that’s what chose to believe because every time I asked what she was up to she rolled her eyes and reminded me about this little piece of paper she signed called a non-disclosure agreement.

This is a euphemism for the phrase, tell anyone what you’re up to and we’ll slice off your legs at the kneecaps.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t entirely that bad, but it was close. Maybe they’d only slice off her legs at the ankles, but she really wasn’t budging.

Anyway, I was given a glance at that amazing level of preparation NASA employs with its projects. Their walls were lined with pictures, graphics, renderings, and sketches of accomplishments and failures.

Yeah, you read that right. Failures.

I’m not saying it’s a gallery of shrapnel and explosions meant to terrorize and paralyze—it’s more like the “Mars Exploration Family Portrait.” There are a lot of pictures and footnotes that say, Stranded in Earth orbit, Crashed on surface, or Destroyed during launch.

How many of us would actually snap a selfie as we stand in front of an epic bungle and then nail it to the wall, poster-sized, right outside our office so that a couple dozen times a day we get to eyeball the lead balloon bombs that are our past?

I think not many of us.

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But with each new person I met, read about, or simply saw beavering away in their government issued lung compressing cubicles that day, I began to wonder if maybe these people’s parents might have peppered their bedroom walls with exactly that kind of décor.

Not to be cruel. But to be … constructive.

Imagine this: right next to their American Mathematics Competition medal, their National Latin Exam Award certificate, and their Presidential Physical Fitness badge, there are two school exams—also pasted up on that wall. One is a Latin essay with whatever Latin words are the equivalent to this paper is atrocious scrawled across the top of it, and the other is a math exam with a big bold red F next to their name.

Next to that is a pink slip from Burger King with the explanatory words Malt machine too complicated for employee to master. This is just above a snapshot of a text reply to the request for a date revealing the response, Uh, Seriously? You’ve got to be joking.

Yep. Victories and defeats.

Achievements and downfalls.

Wins and washouts.

It is rocking horse manure rare to have one without the other. And yet as parents, we typically practice buffering our kids from these missteps and wrecks because …

Well … who wants to see our offspring suffer, or struggle, or return to us bleeding and holding out the handlebars of their new bicycle in one hand and three teeth in the other? Who routinely places their descendants in some Houdini hindrance and says, “Don’t forget to hold your breath,” just before their ears are submerged under water? Who leaps up from the bleachers and fist pumps the air, hollering, “I got it on tape!” to their kid who just did a major face plant onto the asphalt just as the one hundred meter dash shotgun went off and then explained to surrounding parents that the rest of the night was going to be spent watching that film a thousand times and taking notes?

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It’s just not something we regularly do.

But NASA does.

And I vote NASA raises our kids from now on.

I know that sounds a bit extreme, and I’m not saying we just shove them all over their security gate in the middle of the night, dust our hands of the whole situation and then drive home.

No.

We can visit.

We’ll gauge their progress and applaud their efforts. We can wander the facilities hallways and see their scrubs and scratches, identifying the technical names for efforts that had to be scrapped because NASA has an abort procedure for everything: pad, launch, ascent, in-flight, and even the one everybody wishes they had in their car for an annoying passenger—ejection. Some plan for every phase of the course lest something goes wrong. And it will.

Our kids don’t have to stay there very long. Just until they get the hang of the new mindset, this unusual framework for their labors.

And that framework is: You will get it wrong. And then you get it right. Errors are normal. Mistakes are natural. Failure is fated. But what it doesn’t have to be is THE END.

In no short amount of time, they’ll be well rehearsed for life.

I know it can work. I heard the setup after I’d dropped my daughter off at the beginning of the summer. This was gist of the conversation:

Mentor: “Here’s what I want you to do. Make blank do blank.” *

Daughter: “Umm … That’s not very specific.”

Mentor: “Don’t I know it. That’s life. Now off you go.”

Results? Plenty. Loads of them. Usable ones? Not so many. Lots of failures. An endless amount. Embarrassing ones, time consuming and hugely frustrating ones.

Except one.

And really, truly, ultimately—that is the point. Don’t fall at the first hurdle.

Because what people often misunderstand is that right up until the moment of the wreck is not a colossal waste of time or effort. The result may be called failing, but the rest … is called learning.

There’s a lot to be said for scars and skinned knees. Our war wounds can be epic and extraordinary tales. They show we’ve done battle and that we made it through to the other side. They can prepare and instruct and inspire our kids to reach for the stars.

To fly to the moon. To land on Mars.

And maybe more important, to come back again.

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~Shelley

*(sigh … nondisclosure agreement thingie)

For the time being, our blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The story of your life.

As you read this, I want you to envision how I would probably appear if I were standing in front of you, holding out a cup of tea and offering up an appreciative smile for having the courage to come back after the massive five part series adventure of last month.

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I am probably bleary-eyed, brain-fogged, and dressed in the same war-torn, weed-hacking, stiff with mosquito repellant clothes I’ve been throwing on for the last four days simply because I’ve no time to take the extra few steps into my closet and find something fresh to wear. Time is ticking exponentially faster with each glance I make at the clock, and I can’t seem to stop it.

These are the last few days I’m helping to prepare (read—preparing) my daughter for her shove off from home and toward the land of her personal Edutopia.

University looms in front of us.

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Hitching a ride with the rising buildings of academia are the rising fears of what lies beneath the phrases I’ve been shouting lately:

Have you finished your orientation registration forms?

Did you fax your immunization records to the Health Screening Office on campus?

What are all these boxes of clothes for? You’re moving into a dorm room the size of large broom closet. All you need are pajamas and a lab coat!

Yeah, there’s fear here. And excitement, and panic, and tenderness and uncertainty. Volumes of emotional exposure.

But these chapters are what make up life. The living part of life—not the hiding from it.

When I look back at the last few years of raising my children—no, these two young adults who still occasionally come to me for food, money, transportation and every once in a blue moon advice–I clearly see the one thing I wanted both of them to become:

Mistake-ridden.

This is a description I’ve encouraged them to develop for as many years as they’ve been drawing breath. I do not want a safe life for either one of them—nor for myself. I want them to acknowledge their fears, discover their weaknesses, and expose their raw and shatterable insecurities. I want them to stumble, to fall and to fail. And I want them to do this wholeheartedly with an openness to adventure and a liability for results.

And then I want them to repeat this process until they draw their very last breath.

For only by doing so will they touch upon the magnificence of courage.

I don’t want to see these two people standing on the sidelines. I want them inside the game. Sitting at the table. Winning and losing, losing and winning. I want them to show up, knees knocking with nerves, a heart hammering with upheaval and a stomach fluttering with butterflies. I want them to be brave enough to know that even though they may be rejected, they will never look back with ruefulness and self-reproach because timidity held them back.

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Another year of school begins for both of them next week. My messages have been steady and repetitive:

Be hungry, but feed others.

Listen and lead.

Don’t hide, unmask yourself and try.

Get up, get up, GET UP.

I know it’s a lot to ask. I know it’s fraught with embarrassment and pain and mounting self-doubt. It’s an accumulation of scabs and scars and long-healing wounds. But the alternative is bland. It will never leave them breathless. It has a bitter aftertaste. It is an all-encompassing folding in and shriveling up. It is effortless—and my coaching has been all about living an effortful life.

The world is a series of doors waiting not for a tentative knock, but for a hand that tries the latch. It is a succession of thresholds—those moments where you are on the brink of something, but only if you make the necessary, scary steps toward the edge of the precipice. Life is a giant leap of trust into a glistening pool of risk. It is cold and brutal, shocking and raw—yes, but it is also triumphant.

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And what do our children truly need to accomplish these directives? This chalk talk for the game of life? These instructions that promise them a life profoundly lived?

Nothing more than vulnerability and curiosity.

Nothing more than pajamas and a lab coat.

~Shelley

PS. As shortly I shall be neck deep in all things dorm room and parent orientation related, and as Robin has worked his pencils down to the barest of nubs and is in search of replacements, the show will go dark next week. But we will return the following weekend, full of stories and full of life. Fully written and illustrated for YOU.

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

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