Time is of the Essence

I have written extensively on the time it takes to be a writer.  But it’s not just time, it’s discipline.  Someone ought to invent “writers’ glue” that sticks writers’ butts in their chairs for a minimum amount of time each day.  Oh yeah, and while they’re at it, the special glue should automatically disconnect the phones and the internet for a few hours.  Any inventors out there?

In the past year I have done an extensive amount of teaching and a lot less writing than in the prior five years.  In fact, beyond my twice-weekly blogs, I barely wrote at all.  But now, with enrollment down in the international schools in Tokyo, including Temple University, I find myself unemployed and with unlimited time to write.  Okay, I have parental responsibilities and a husband who needs my time, too, so the time isn’t unlimited, but it sure does stretch out.  Just like one’s “stuff” expands to fill the available space in a house, so a task seems to expand to fill the available time.

In the past three weeks since being back in Tokyo from my summer holiday, I have spent a lot of time simply staring at a blank computer screen. It takes a lot of time and just plain gumption to put words on a page and make them into a story or a nonfiction piece.  At the moment, I am building my gumption.  It will come.  I promise it will come.  It will just be a slow process to get back in the saddle.  But I’m working on it – I promise!

On Being Done

Tuesday was my last day as a teacher at the International Secondary School.  Last week my son finished grade 7 and my daughter finished grade 4.  My writer’s brain searches for meaning in everything, so I can’t help but wonder what it all means – starting, finishing, seasons, changes – all of it.  But now, after two days of processing,   I don’t think it means all that much.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are still milestones to mark, boxes to tick off, and occasions to note and celebrate, but maybe certain things do not have to be dwelled upon ad nauseum.  There are millions of books, articles, blog posts and poems written about startings and endings, and everything in between, but maybe it’s okay to just acknowledge the change and simply move on.

I’m saying this because we, as a society, have become fixated on these ideas.  Our kindergarteners graduate, our fifth graders graduate and our eighth graders graduate.  There is pomp and presents at every turn.  Maybe sometimes we have to just relax and move through things quietly.  Maybe sometimes we can stop and reflect quietly without a ticker-tape parade.

In Tokyo the expat community is contracting severely.  Banks are moving operations to other countries, as are various large firms, so many foreigners are moving not home, but to another place in order to keep their jobs.  So this year, not only is the year ending for the international schools, but with so many people moving, things will look very different when school re-opens in the fall.  Those of us staying are mourning the loss of their friends to whom we have been close and secretly wondering if they know something we don’t know.  But I don’t want to make a big deal out of it.  I want to let it all slide by me.  There’s nothing I can do about it, so I am avoiding the bigger parties and concentrating on spending one-on-one time with my friends who are leaving.  Normally I feel pretty excited at this time of year as I ready myself and the kids to take our long summer holiday in the U.S. But this year, I just want to quietly mark and pass the time.  I want to wish my friends well in their new lives, and prepare to move forward with my own.

There is something to be said for simple, quiet reflection.  Celebration and the special marking of the passage of time are all good in their place, but this year, I’m all about it the quiet reflection.

I Miss Writing!

I am lucky that I have two passions: writing and teaching writing.  For the past four years, I pursued just the writing and I wasn’t teaching at all.  Some people claimed it was a waste of a good doctorate, but I didn’t care – I just worked on my freelance career and a whole lot of fiction.  Last year around this time, I decided to pursue an advertisement in a local magazine for a writing (English) teacher at a local international high school.  It’s important to note that it’s an international school, because it’s not primarily Japanese and it runs on an American calendar, not a Japanese one that begins in mid-April.  If I am going to work outside the home, I need to make sure that it doesn’t affect the kids in any real way, and part of the kids’ lives – and mine – is a long summer in the U.S. with family and friends.   Well, I got the job.  It seemed perfect – just mornings and though it was every day, I’d be done by 11:30am.  Of course when you have a job is when it’s easiest to get a job, and I got an email from Temple University (there is a Tokyo branch of the Philadelphia school!) that they needed adjunct instructors.  I had worked there in the past and loved it – it was an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up.

Well, autumn came and I started teaching every morning and two afternoons a week for only 2 hours.  It was busy, but I could do it.  Then I found out that two courses were available to me if I wanted them at Temple, starting from January.

So since January, I’ve been teaching at the high school every morning and then three afternoons a week, I teach at Temple from 12-5.  Between actual face-time with students and prep work, things have been more than slightly out of control.  House stuff has been shunted aside.  I haven’t been fully present for the kids in the evenings because I’m constantly thinking about something else.  And our healthy eating habits have been slipping.

But here’s the worst effect: I haven’t been writing.  I have been pretty good about the blog and my writing for “A Hopeful Sign” but other than that, nothing.  I haven’t written an article in months and not a single word of fiction.  I miss it so much!  I have characters running around in my head with nowhere to go.  I have article ideas and no time to pitch them to potential editors.  My time has been just that limited.

The good news is that the university classes end in just over a week.  I still have grading to do, which will take about a week, but right away my time will be my own in the afternoons.  And I’ve decided to give up the high school completely.  It’s not fair to our lives for me to work every day – other things really slip through the cracks.  A few times a week is perfect.  Of course, Temple is having enrollment issues, and there might not be classes for me to teach, but I’ll be okay with whatever they have.  So after the long summer break, I will come back to a modified schedule.

I can’t wait to start writing again after next week.  I wonder what I’ll do first.  Articles? Fiction? Creative nonfiction?  Who knows!  All I knew is that I will have the time to write again and I will be overjoyed.  I miss it madly now and can’t wait to re-start.  I’ve learned a lot of lessons this school year and hopefully some of them stick.  The best part is the clarity I have on what balance looks like for me.  Balance doesn’t look the same for every person and every person has to find it for himself, but for me, balance has more writing and less teaching in it.

The knowledge is power.  Onward ho!

Parenting and Writing

There are definitely days when I feel sorry for my kids.  Having a writer for a mother cannot be easy.  At ages 9 and 12, they have not yet discovered all the places where their lives are exposed for the world to see and on which to make comment.  Not only do I keep a regular blog on which they appear often, but I write monthly for “A Hopeful Sign” which is more of an e-zine devoted to messages of hope, optimism and beauty and they’re often the focus of the stories.  I have written about Bailey in a magazine called Asian Jewish Life and I had a two-page spread a few years ago about both kids and my observations about their Montessori classrooms in the official magazine of the International Montessori Association, Today’s Child.  Sometimes little blurbs about them appear in my academic writing since I test out so many of my pedagogical theories on them first.  When I give speeches, I tell anecdotes about them, and in my classrooms, all of my students invariably know a lot about what the kids are doing.  Admittedly I used them as entree for lessons.

It is my choice to self-disclose in a public way.  Bailey and Sydney, however, have not made this choice – their public mother has made it for them.  Actually, at this point they still like it somewhat.  They feel famous.  I haven’t yet mentioned to them that the venues in which I publish aren’t quite national news and that their fame has a  limited  readership.

Oh, there are a lot of things I don’t discuss, including the kids’ schools, friends, doctors’ appointments – those are strictly tabo0.  As they move into teenage-hood, I imagine the list of “don’ts” will increase by their demand.  I have already heard, “Mom, are you going to write about this?”  I wasn’t sure of the mood or motivation of the question.

But for now, the kids are my best fodder.  They interest me, and it is a challenge and a goal to make their escapades and adventures interesting to potential readers.  As a writer, I’m always looking into real life for interesting ideas in both fiction and non-fiction.  Of course my family is my first go-to for material.  And hopefully, thirty years from now, after years of very expensive therapy, both of my children will be able to talk easily, if not disparagingly, about their mother the writer.

Nobody loves you like I do, Kid.

Critical Thinking as the Basis for Writing

The only way to thrive and succeed in a knowledge-based economy like the one in which we live now, is to view all content through the lens of critical thought.  Not only do we have to focus on ideas, creativity and thinking, but we have to be critical about it, fostering self-awareness of our own cognition.  This is the theoretical basis from which we write – and read.  Sophisticated thinkers ask themselves questions as they read, whether they are aware of it or not.  We ask questions to intuit point of view, setting and character.  We predict and analyze, whether we think about it consciously or not.  I would argue that it behooves us to be meta about our own thought process and in doing so, teach our children to be excited and interested in in it as it leads to good habits in the future.  Just as we encourage kids to develop good eating and exercise habits that will benefit them in later life, so should we encourage a strong, directed, and self-aware thought process so that the of thinking is as automatic as our morning run or fruit with breakfast.  In addition, by fostering questioning, we ask kids to organize their thoughts into coherent ideas, which will lead to better writing skills.  In theory, by teaching reading and writing via teaching critical thinking we are preparing students for the knowledge economy in which they will exist post-academia.  Taking in knowledge, processing it, and then putting it out again in the form of our own ideas is the ultimate goal.

And this, my friends, is the basis for good writing – no matter what your age.

My Son The Writer

My grandmother with my children in 2010.

Last week my son had a conversation with my grandmother, his great grandmother.  He had a school assignment to speak to someone – anyone he knew and could interview – who had a connection with World War II.  My grandfather was a pharmacist on a hospital ship based in Europe during the war, and though he died fifteen years ago, my grandmother was the obvious go-to source for help.

Before the call, Bailey created a list of questions to ask.  I looked over the list and they were good questions – ones designed to get her to talk and tell a story.  I knew my grandmother wouldn’t need much prompting to talk.  He wanted to know if Papa enlisted or was drafted.  He wanted to know if Papa ever saved any lives and how he survived the war.  He had questions for Grandma about the home front as well.  It was a good list.

As I predicted, Grandma didn’t need much prompting to talk.  She told Bailey a great story that Papa had told her about how the convoy that included his hospital ship normally sailed in complete darkness for secrecy, and then noticing the beauty of the lights on V.E. day when they could be more overt.  She reminded him that Papa was in Europe when my mother was born and he came home to fatherhood for the first time. She told him about how Papa donated his uniforms for Israeli soldiers after the war.  She told him about the patriotism of New Yorkers and how everyone did their part.  I listened to the entire interview as it happened on speakerphone.  My grandfather was just an ordinary guy, but at the same time, a great guy and a wonderful grandfather.  I spoke to him every day the last year of him life, and Bailey carries his name.   The whole conversation was rife with meaning – to my grandmother, to me, and even to Bailey.

With all of this info, Bailey had to write not an essay, but a poem.  That night, he sat down with his notes and wrote each line that Grandma had told him.  Then under it he wrote a line or two of description or analysis of the story.  He wrote concisely and tried to be as poetic as possible.  He really crafted the words.  He ended up with more than 400 words.

The next day Bailey’s teacher had a few words to say to the students about how to write, and actually suggested the method that Bailey used – quote then analysis.  He also had a word limit of 300 words, so Bailey then had to go back and tighten his language without losing any meaning – a tough exercise for any writer, novice or seasoned.  But he did it – he got it down to just about 300.

Bailey spent Tuesday evening reading the poem aloud over and over again to give it in class on Wednesday.  He said it went really well and the teacher and his classmates seemed to like the poem.  I was pleased for him.

Somehow he captured the feelings – he captured the idea that while my Papa wasn’t a war hero per se, every act at wartime is an act of heroism.  He found the words to name the sacrifice of missing the birth of his first child, and the depth of meaning behind giving uniforms to the army of the burgeoning state of Israel, much of whose initial population was comprised of former concentration camp victims.

I really didn’t help much; Bailey found the words to do it himself.  For me, as a writer, it was joyful to watch him do it.  The learning process – the thinking process – that is going on in his head as he develops never ceases to amaze me.  Is he learning from me?  I don’t know and I am not sure it matters much.  Bailey is just at the start of his educational journey, and I hope he can derive the same sweetness from it that I have had over the years.  He’s off to a strong start.

Workplace Equality In Japan: What’s in it for Men? My Latest Article

My most recent article appears in Eurobiz magazine, the publication of the European Chamber of Commerce in Japan,  this month.  I interviewed Dutch native Wendela Elsen, a Human Resources consultant in Tokyo, about her passion for not only gender equality in the workplace, but also about the role of men in creating such equality.  A recent study out of the New York Center for workplace equality supports her ideas.

This is an important piece and a topic to which we can all relate.  Enjoy!

Click here to see the full article.