Another IPS (Inner Peace Symptom): an understanding that “creativity” is not a talent; it is a way of operating. [The coolest thing is anybody can do it.]
I guess it’s a cliché now. One way to enhance your creativity, they tell us, is to keep a journal. Snuggle up with your thoughts and illuminate your feelings, write down your dreams and hunches, collect quotes from the famous and the notorious.
Spend time in your own head. Be your own psychotherapist. Be your own guru. At the very least, you can be your own pen-pal.
Journalizing your life is part of a long, long tradition. In Enlightenment-era Europe, during the “Age of Reason” (which most people say runs from around 1685 to 1815), it was all the rage.
The smarty pants and wise guys then all kept what they called “commonplace books.” These were personalized encyclopedias of quotes as well as thoughts and aspirations and other bits of their own writings that scholars, amateur scientists and aspiring men of letters put together.
Some folks transcribed whole gobs of books they found interesting in their commonplace books. (One guy cobbled together parts of the Bible that made sense to him, leaving out the parts that didn’t. This was not well-received in some circles.)
One of the leading lights of the Enlightenment movement was John Locke. He was a systems guy and from an early age he was busy devising new systems and new ways of looking at things.
Locke developed a version of the commonplace book in 1652 (during his first year at Oxford) that was a cause for excitement among the geeks and nerds of the day. Locke put together an elaborate system for indexing his commonplace book’s contents which made it easy for him to find passages and ideas that he wanted to revisit, review, and use. Others followed his example.
Nowadays journals come in all shapes and sizes, fancy and plain. They’re mostly blank books that you fill in your own self. Some are peppered with other people’s thoughts, all ready for you to use. They’ve come to be one of the default gifts you want to give to people who are Makers (or who want to be).
You can write in them and you can turn them into sketchbooks or artsy work notepads and such. You can even turn them into works of art.
The things are ubiquitous. Everybody gets one at some point or other. There are magazines, how-to videos, courses and guidebooks for making your own as well.
If you’re not particularly into deep thinking, if writing is boring for you, or if you are insecure about your art skills, receiving one of those things can precipitate a minor crisis of sorts. (It becomes one more thing to hide under your bed or tuck behind other stuff on the shelves and ignore.)
For the people who have never been able to “finish” one of those ready-made journals, here’s a You-Tube video about WRECK THIS JOURNAL, a book put together by guerilla-artist, author, and illustrator Keri Smith. It was published in 2012 by Penguin Books as a promotion for her book of that name.
That book took off and is the first of four volumes in a series.
Over the years, Keri Smith has made an astonishing array of books about creativity and getting your art on. Her books include bestselling concept books like:
For many years she also maintained a popular website, Wish Jar, that is a beautifully constructed on-line journal of sorts. It doesn’t seem to be very active these days, but the site is lovely to explore anyway.
THE JOY OF DIGITAL ARCHIVING
And that’s the other thing: Computers can be turned into journaling tools, if that’s your bent. You, too, can put together a digital archive.
You can fill it with all kinds of stuff: quotes, research on specific projects, passages transcribed from articles and books, web page clippings, and random discoveries, hunches and intuitions of your own.
Some folks call clunkier, more workaday versions of these things “swipe files.” (That term gets my back up. It sounds like an invitation to thievery or something.)
I prefer to think of the things as a stewpot simmering away over a bunson burner or a hot plate. (Or maybe it’s a cute personal crockpot, if you’re not into minimalism.) You can get some really good writing or art-making “stock” out of that stuff…even from the yawn-inducing junk.
I am a writer and a poet. For me thoughts and ideas are building blocks and ingredients that can be cooked together in a variety of ways. The thoughts you add to your archive (whether digital or paper) can add savor and flavor to your own efforts at writing or art.
Even if you fish out all the bits of meat and vegetables in a long-cooking stew, the broth holds the flavor anyhow.
In 2001, a group of friends graduated from college and set out on a cross-country road trip to interview people who lived “lives centered around what was meaningful for them.”
The boys acquired an RV, and wandered around countryside filming a documentary about their trip in which they brazenly approached all sorts of people who were doing what looked like interesting things and asked them a lot of personal questions about life-issues like, “How do you know that this thing you do is right for you?” and “What was your worst mistake?” and “What advice do you have for a lost puppy like me?”
The documentary the friends made of their journey was expanded into a series on PBS. They wrote a book about the first road trip.
This first book was followed by other books, by other projects all designed to help other people get the kind of insights the young men acquired on their own original road trip.
Eventually they and the team they assembled along the way launched a nonprofit called “Roadtrip Nation.” The goal of this nonprofit is to help other young people who need advice for shaping their own careers into something fulfilling, for living a life doing what matters most to them.
In the following YouTube video, “Road Trip Nation: The RT Nation Story,” the three friends, Mike Marriner, Nathan Gebhard and Brian McAllister, tell the story of their continuing journey.
They point out that going around the country asking people they encountered questions about how they ended up living lives that had meaning and mana helped each of them find their own truths, their own self-definitions, and their own kind of good life.
Asking questions and listening to the answers from people who had taken their own paths was profoundly useful to them. It helped them answer that age-old question, “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?”
What started as a madcap adventure-cum-vision quest has spawned a whole movement of young people who are looking for their own answers to this most important question.
Besides an assortment of books, Roadtrip Nation maintains an extensive on-line video library of the interviews they conducted on their PBS series.
If you click on the “watch” link you can browse the PBS series by season. Within each season you can browse each episode by interview subject. Among those interviewed are everything from CEOs of major corporations to everyday workers in all kinds of industries and working situations who love what they do.
Sometimes, it really is only a little thing that can make a big difference. A genuine smile may brighten someone’s day. A kind word or a sincere expression of appreciation can help somebody keep on going through tough times.
“Loving-kindness” was what the Tibetan Buddhist crazy wisdom master Chogyam Trungpa Rimpocheused to call it, and for him and his students it was a most pertinent practice. It helps alleviate the suffering in the world, the old masters all say.
And, yeah: It’s a cliché. But that’s the thing about clichés…often they are just old truths that we need to keep telling each other as reminders.
It’s often really, really little, this loving-kindness thing. It’s pretty much ordinary and every-day. Still, loving-kindness is the best way us humans have for connecting with each other.
The original story by Elizabeth Silance Ballard was first published in a 1974 issue of Home Life magazine as “Three Letters from Teddy.” Over the next three decades it spread, even making an appearance in one of the CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL books. It is a good story.
Here’s another video produced by the Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas that was published on YouTube by Sarheed Jewels in 2011. It asks: What if you could see other people’s problems? How would that affect you?
One of the loveliest online sites about loving-kindness in action is the one put up by the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation (RAK), a group of educators and community leaders led by Gary Dixon who are all dedicated to the proposition that us humans are meant to go around spreading warm fuzzies. Their mission is to encourage you to go forth and be kind.
The RAKtivists believe that kindness is teachable and contagious. They can point to a lot of scientific evidence that seems to validate the fact that doing kind things is actually very good for your own health.
Among the findings they highlight are the following facts:
Kindness produces oxytocin, the “love hormone.” Oxytocin, in turn causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide which dilates the blood vessels. This aids in lowering blood pressure and helps protect the heart increasing overall heart-health.
Harvard Business School did a survey of happiness in 136 countries in 2010 that found that people who were generous financially were happiest overall.
People who volunteer tend to experience fewer ache and pains. One study showed that people 55 and older who volunteered for two or more organizations were at 44 percent more likely to live longer. Other studies have shown that engaging in acts of kindness produces endorphins – the brain’s natural painkiller.
There’s a thing called the “helper’s high,” according to research from Emory University, that is a consequence of the fact that often when you’re kind to someone else your brain’s pleasure and reward centers light up. Maybe that’s because acts of kindness apparently stimulate the feel-good anti-depressant serotonin, which helps to heal wounds, calm you and make you happy.
So…here’s one other benefit to the whole kindness thing: When you’re kind to somebody else, it just naturally bounces back on you. And isn’t that a very good thing?
Here’s a poem:
I PROMISED ME
No one ever promised
That life would always be true and fair
Or that there’d be a shelter from the storm,
A warm fire waiting there,
That happy would perch on your head
And belt out one more song,
That reaching out a solid hand
Would find other fingers reaching, just as strong,
Another IPS (Inner Peace Symptom): an understanding that generosity is not a down-payment on love. [Generosity is spill-over when you’re feeling full.]
I am reading a book, LOVE LET GO: Radical Generosity for the Real World, by Laura Sumner Truax and Amalya Campbell. It is a story about an amazing church congregation in Chicago, the LaSalle Street Church, who received a totally unexpected windfall: a check for $1,530,116.78.
The check represented the church’s share of proceeds from the sale of an urban property that they had bought in the 1970s with three other churches. The land had been used for a desperately needed low-income housing project in the neighborhood, Atrium Village, which had served the purpose for more than 25 years.
The church’s heartful investment had been returned…in spades.
This 2017 YouTube video of a “100 Huntley Street” interview with pastor Laura Sumner Truax, one of the authors of the book, is a kind of a teaser for the book.
As Truax says, the church leaders made a wild, counter-intuitive move that changed the game on a clear day in September, 2014. The leaders used ten percent of the windfall money to tithe back to the church members. Each church member received a $500 check with the injunction to go out and do good in God’s world.
The leadership of the church also encouraged the members to participating in the effort to study and pray on how they were going to allocate the rest of the windfall funds, the “Big Money.” More than half of the congregation spent nine months on the project.
The book tells the story of what happened and what the people involved in this exploration learned as a result. It was and remains an ever-evolving, extraordinary process and journey, one that makes my heart smile.
THE GIVING CHURCH
LaSalle Street Church was built in 1886 in the near north side of Chicago by Swedish immigrants who never once worshipped in it. The congregation had been left bankrupt by the effort of its construction.
Its history of hard luck and scarcity continued throughout the church’s long history of involvement with a community that is diverse and sometimes volatile. One of the primary principles the church has always held to is this: Giving is better than receiving.
They really did walk their talk even though most of the time the church was, like their neighbors, “just getting by.”
Giving didn’t change the church’s financial circumstances but it did change “the way LaSalle wore its scarcity,” as authors Laura Sumner Truax and Amalya Campbell lyrically puts it. They did it with style and their acts of generosity were truly appreciated.
During the 1960s, when Chicago exploded in the violence and vitriol of the race riots, local youth protected the LaSalle Street Church from burning. The angry young ones who were pressing for change remembered. They protected the people who helped them through their hard times.
The church has always been a major light in the community. Senior citizens who needed company and a meal, the kids looking for sanctuary and a safe place to go after school and residents who were caught up in a legal system they could not navigate all found what they needed at the church.
This video, which was put together by Faustino Productions in 2015, was published on YouTube by tinogon1942. It shows the aftermath of the Chicago riots on the west side of Chicago after Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968 as the Supreme’s “Stop In the Name of Love” plays.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s Chicago officials embraced the concept of urban renewal and started creating high-density, high-rise dwellings like Cabrini-Green and relocated people from the poorer parts of town to these new developments. The joke going ’round then among the city residents was that the program would have been more aptly named “urban removal.”
In reaction to this government program, LaSalle Street Church’s senior pastor at the time, Bill Leslie, preached a commitment to turf. La Salle stood at the edge of communities in transition. On one side, some of the city’s neediest residents lived. On the other side was some of the most expensive real estate in Chicago.
Leslie thought that the church could be a meeting place where everyone was welcomed. He and his congregation of fifty-some members believed that at the bottom of it all the church was all about all of us people being in this old mess of a world all together.
The members who were better-off materially saw themselves in their poorer neighbors’ situation. They understood the struggles and they also believed that they needed their neighbors as much as their neighbors needed them. They looked for a way to help.
In this they were aided by local congressman Robert L. Thompson, an African-American who was also a long-time resident of the city. Thompson worried over the impact of urban renewal on the thousands of his constituents who were facing displacement.
When Thompson was offered a bribe of ten thousand dollars to influence the award of the rights to the land occupied by the LaSalle’s row house neighbors, he refused. Then he called Leslie.
Somehow the congregation found what they thought could be a solution to their neighbor’s problems. There was a plot of land for sale that sat to the west of the church, juxtaposed against the homes of high society to the east. It was big enough and near enough for a housing development to which their neighbors could relocate and still be neighbors.
Over the next two months Leslie rallied LaSalle and several other churches to invest one thousand dollars each in a campaign to secure the land rights. (When you consider that Leslie’s own salary hovered around three thousand dollars at the time, it was a goodly sum of money back then.)
The housing project that grew there, Atrium Village, was the first housing development in the country to be financed and constructed by state, private and church funding. It took years for all the players to finally agree to the vision of a truly diverse project: 50 percent black and 50 percent white; 50 percent market-rate and 50 percent under-market rate rents.
The first apartment tower was dominated by a nine-story open atrium. That atrium gave the “village” its name and it lessened a significant fear factor. The central atrium left no dark hallways in the building. Light flooded in.
Also, there were glass elevators that allowed light and visibility and the courtyard area around the buildings provided safe places for children to play.
Atrium Village opened to a flood of three thousand applicants. It became a solid anchor in the community and was a testing ground for finding the best practices for community-based housing. It was also the first of three building projects the church undertook in the neighborhood, all of which focused on building community engagement among people who were different from one another.
The other two were a building for senior housing and another for a legal-aid clinic.
Here’s a short YouTube video, a for-rent ad for Atrium Village apartments, published in 2012 by apartmenthomelivingA.
In the early 2000s, almost 25 years after Atrium opened its doors, La Salle got word that the primary investor in the development wanted to sell its interest. The restrictive covenants on Atrium would soon expire without possibility of renewal. The city was in the process of demolishing Cabrini-Green, the public-housing complex of 30-story buildings that had been a long-time neighborhood fixture.
The new model for government thinking on the public-housing problem was dubbed “scattered site” housing. Instead of monolithic structures, the vision now was lower-density, low-rise units that served a diverse population – exactly the vision that the people who made Atrium Village happen advocated.
The times they were a-changing…again.
Even though the churches who initiated the Atrium Village project represented only a 15 percent interest in the property, as a voting bloc, they could stop the sale of the property. Two of the partner churches faced almost certain closure by their denominations because their memberships had dwindled down to mere handfuls.
The church memberships had watched the Cabrini-Green towers come down, knowing that the retail developers were also watching it happen. Condominiums that cost upwards of half a million dollars were being planned.
The churches, all of whom were like LaSalle and framed their ministry on being bridge churches, understood that their neighborhoods were changing. They finally reached an agreement to sell their interest while negotiating hard for more units set aside for the working poor.
They were supported in this intention by the Chicago city tax assessor, their local alderman, and various community groups. Any redevelopment plan would be required to have 20 percent of its units available at below-market rate.
THE REST OF THE STORY….
And so it happened: the sale, and then the check, and then the tithe from church to its people.
You’ll have to read the book to get the rest of the story.
An interesting history of the church building and the neighborhood provides a glimpse at the background for this story. Here’s the YouTube video, “130 Years – History of the LaSalle Street Church Sanctuary Building,” which was put together and published by the church in 2016.
Japanese farmer-philosopher Masanobu Fukuoda once said, “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation of human beings.”
THE SEED IS PLANTED
In the poorest postal code in Canada, in the city of Vancouver, the old farmer’s vision has come to ground and taken root in a network of four urban farms located on five acres of reclaimed land. They call it “SOLE Food Street Farms.”
The name is an acronym. It arose out of a project, “Saving Our Living Environment” (SOLE), by United We Can, a Vancouver non-profit that operates a recycling program and employs street people and people from the neighborhood to clean up streets and alleys. Until the farms were able to operate independently, they sheltered under the United We Can umbrella.
The project was spearheaded by visionary farmer and food-growing advocate, Michael Ableman (of Foxglove Farm fame), and his collaborator Seann Dory who worked for United We Can. They put together a project that provides stable jobs and training and development for 25 people, most of whom live in the neighborhood where they work. Together they have built an oasis of green in the middle of gray and black city hardscape.
DOWN ON THE FARM
This 2013 video, “The Story of Sole Food,” which was produced by Point Blank Creative with the support of Vancity and is available on YouTube, tells the tale:
The farms have succeeded beyond the two founders’ wildest hopes when they began reclaiming their first piece of ground in the parking lot of the Astoria hotel in Strathcona, the oldest neighborhood in Vancouver (right next door to Downtown Eastside, the poorest postal code in all of Canada.)
Every year the farms produce over 25 tons of fresh produce that includes tree fruit from a large urban orchard that grows in an abandoned railway yard.
The farms supply more than 30 area restaurants and sell at five Vancouver farmer’s markets. They operate a community-supported agriculture program as well.
They donate up to $20,000 work of produce every year to community kitchens.
Most importantly, they help their urban neighbors reconnect and re-ground themselves in the age-old cycles of life and growing that every farm honors and celebrates.
After the farm project had been going for several years, the MBA program at Queen’s University conducted research into the uber-local farming enterprise.
The guys in the lab coats figured out that for every dollar SOLE Foods spent on employing people who are “hard to employ,” there was a $1.70 combined savings to the person and the legal system, the health care system, the social assistance networks, and the environment through carbon sequestration and energy and transportation benefits. A good return-on-investment, that.
The book is a triumphant mash-up of Ableman’s philosophy about farming as a business and a traditional craft with pictures on every page spread (many of them taken by Ableman) documenting the continuing trials and tribulations of trying to build a real farm in the middle of the big city. The best parts of the book are the stories about the relationships that have developed between the organizers, the farm workers, their clients, and the Downtown Eastside neighborhoods where they work and live.
If you’d like more information about SOLE Food Street Farms, CLICK HERE.
At the time it began, the scale of the farms was, perhaps, unique. It was urban agriculture, growing food on a for-real farm that was run as a business with a heavy dose of social consciousness added in. Many of the earlier efforts by assorted city planners and developers in various cities around the world focused on garden-scale projects – urban horticulture rather than agriculture.
It isn’t a new concept, this growing food in the middle of a city. As cities grew, the food needed to feed the people was grown all around them. Sumerians, back in 5000 BCE, were famous for the sophisticated irrigated agriculture in and around some of the world’ earliest cities in what is now southern Iraq.
But, these ancient farmers and all of their descendants in the long history of agriculture did not have farms built on top of pavement covering over the contaminated soil between buildings in the remains of demolished factories and other urban ruins. This is what makes these street farms so remarkable. What makes them even more remarkable are the number of lives they have touched and the ones they have helped to nurture, heal and rebuild.
Michael Abelman says that SOLE Food Street Farms is “based on the belief that the simple act of planting a seed can bring new life to the world.”
[Amen to that one, braddah.]
Another IPS (Inner Peace Symptom): a tendency to build bridges between your world and other people’s worlds. [Foot-traffic on all the bridges you build brings many treasures into your world.]
Among the treasure trove of ideas in Seth Godin’s book, POKE THE BOX, is this one: No one has influence, control, or confidence in their work (or any other area of their life) until they understand how to initiate change and predict how a thing will respond.
The “box” Godin is talking about in his title is any complex bit of your life that you want to understand better with the goal of making your interaction with it more effective.
The “box” might be that brand-new computer program, just sitting there waiting for you to poke at the buttons on your machine and make the new do-dad do things, make it dance.
The “box” might be a market you want to tackle and make sit up and take notice of you. Maybe that “market” is just one special somebody whose attention you crave. It might be a customer or it might be your boss or maybe a somebody you’d like to be significant in your life.
Whatever the “box” is, the thing is a puzzle that can be solved in only one way – by poking.
POKING IS A WAY OF BUILDING A PRACTICE
My brother Michael was an intrepid bug explorer in his youth. He was forever hunkered down, watching lines of ants or other critters, chasing down caterpillars and watching them turn into butterflies, studying spiders in their webs, and grabbing up crickets and grasshoppers.
He spent hours watching what the little guys did, poking at them with fingers and sticks, seeing how they moved and what made them do things differently.
When you do THIS, what happens? When you do THAT, what happens? Hey, it ALWAYS does this when I do that! Wow! Now, why did it do that?
Michael sure did learn a lot about bugs. They were his “box.” After a while he got really good at knowing what assorted bugs did and how and why. He turned an initial wonderment into a passion and that passion became a sort of practice for him.
ANOTHER KIND OF OWNERSHIP
In a similar way, if you poke at your own puzzles, your “box” reveals itself. As you get better at questioning and poking, you not only get smarter but you also gain what Godin calls “ownership.”
You step into the box and make it your own.
Godin’s kind of ownership does not have to be equity or even control. Ownership comes from understanding and from having the power to make things happen. “Ownership” is another name for mastery and influence.
THE WONDER OF IT ALL
It all begins with that sense of wonder, and it begins by asking questions and looking for some answers:
How does this work?
Why does it do that?
How can I make it do something else?
Can I do this with it? What about that?
What are its limits?
Can I expand those limits?
What happens when I do?
As you unravel your puzzles and wander around in your mysteries you’ll find your own answers. As you test your conclusions in the real world, seeing whether the things you’ve thunk actually work outside the confines of your own head, you will develop own your way of walking.
GUIDED BY THE ANSWERS
Consistently asking your questions and faithfully following where the answers lead you eventually gets you to a place where nobody else can answer the questions you still have. By then you’ll have built yourself a practice and a method and means for exploring this world you’ve discovered.
The answers you start finding and following are going to be different than the run-of-the-mill, regular ones. You’ve already gone past those everybody-knows-that answers.
If you do it right and don’t fall down some pothole or other and the creek don’t rise, maybe you’ll spark up more questions that other people can use to construct their own paths.
THE QUESTION-BOX HEADS OUT
It all starts with being aware. It all starts with noticing. It all starts with a determination to go where the answers to your questions lead you.
Godin says, “Winners turn initiative into a passion and a practice.” With his book, he shows you a way of doing just that.
The following YouTube video, “Make Your Life Spectacular,” was published by Goalcast and is a tribute to one of my favorite funny guys, the late Robin Williams. What a heartful man!
Here’s a poem, constructed for one who followed his questions:
The Twin Poets are identical twin brothers, Nnamdi Chukwuocha (born Elbert Mills) and Albert Mills, with a unique style of poetry that evolved out of their habit of finishing each other’s sentences and the rap and hip-hop of their youth. They are internationally known for their live performances of socially conscious work, including “Dreams Are Illegal In the Ghetto” and “Homework for Breakfast.
Their book, OUR WORK, OUR WORDS…: Taking the Guns From Our Sons’ Handsare filled with poems that tell the stories of the people they’ve encountered in their work as social workers and teachers for more than 17 years in the poorest sections of Wilmington, Delaware. These poems are definitely “Life-Built Poems” — of the most heartbreaking kind.
The brothers appeared on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” series in the mid-2000s and, as a result have since performed on stages across America, Europe and Africa. Through it all they continued to work with the people in their communities.
Besides being poets, the twins spent more than 17 years working at the Kingswood Community Center in Wilmington, Delaware and continued to expand and develop their idea that art could counter the dream-killing effects of poverty and hardship. Mills is a family therapist and community-based social worker and Chukwuocha is a social worker who has served on the Wilmington City Council for a number of years.
In 2014, Newsweek called Wilmington, “Murder Town USA” and said it ranked third on the FBI’s annual list of “most violent cities” among cities of comparable size. It also ranked fifth when compared to all cities with populations greater than 50,000.
Most of the city is safe, Wilmington residents who were offended by the Newsweek article protested.
A 2015 Delaware Today article, “Wilmington Crime: A City That Bleeds,” pointed out that the numbers in the statistics used by the Newsweek report of murder and mayhem are disproportionately centered in areas like the Hilltop neighborhood mentioned as well as other, similar neighborhoods and are the result of a number of chronic problems – not enough jobs, not enough support of education and training, housing issues, and several generations of social ills that have no easy solutions. It continues to be an ongoing problem.
Over the years the brothers have received a number of awards recognizing them for their community service, including the Village Award (2006) from the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families and a Local Heroes Award from Bank of America (2006).
The Twin Poets were the State of Delaware Mentors of the Year in 2001, and, in December, 2015, they were named the 17th Poet Laureate (a shared title) of the state of Delaware by former Governor Jack Markell.
Another article in Delaware Today, “Wilmington’s Twin Poets Provide Healing Through Art,” chronicles the extraordinary efforts they’ve made and continue to make to help save the children in the poorest of the communities they service from the hopelessness and helplessness that the disenfranchised experience in their world.
The brothers founded Art for Life–Delaware, a community-based, social worker-led mentoring program that uses art to change the lives of delinquent youth and their families.
They also developed G.O.A.L.S. (Getting Organized Always Leads To Success), a tutoring and mentoring program that teaches children about the importance of self-expression and writing.
This Hearts and Mind Film published in 2013 features the Twin Poets poem, “Why I Write”:
“Why I Write” is also the name of a website about the brothers and their work that was initially designed by the interactive design students at the University of Delaware.
As Chukwuocha says in the Delaware Today article about their life, the brothers have refused many invitations to become rap and hip-hop sensations over the years. They wanted to “make a difference,” he said. They continue trying.
It’s the first thing they teach you in chef school: a system called mise-en-place, or literally, “put in place.” It’s a French phrase that means to gather and arrange the ingredients and tools needed for cooking.
The mise evolved out of the rigid “brigade system” of culinary hierarchy codified in the 19th century by Chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier. This system emphasizes focus and self-discipline and a high level of organization and order.
Escoffier would probably have agreed with Ben Franklin who once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
In the high-stress world of the professional chefs, planning and preparation are paramount. How else could they prepare so many meals of exceptional quality, one after the other in a three-hour period, night after night after night?
Preparation is the essence of mise-en-place.
At its most basic, mise-en-place means to set out all of your ingredients before you start to cook. Measure out what you will need, chop the vegetables that will need to be chopped, and have everything ready on the counter or in small bowls on a tray.
If you talk to professional chefs, that part of the mise-en-place is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Some of them get downright Zen or Jedi about it. Everything has to be in place, including your stance and your mindset.
As Charnas says in an article he wrote for National Public Radio, “….most colleges and grad schools don’t teach basic organization. Culinary schools and professional kitchens do.”
This YouTube video, “The Ingredients of Work Clean,” published by Rodale Press shortly before the book came out, contains a brief explanation of what it is: a simple system that helps you focus your actions and accomplish your aims
Planning is prime. Be ruthlessly honest about time and timing. It’s the only way you can set it up right.
Arrange spaces so you can perfect moves. Place things so you can make your moves with just the flick of your fingers. Know how you move and place your dishes of prepared ingredients and your tools right where you will be able to reach them when it’s time to use them.
Clean as you go. Keep your tools and your station as organized as when you first started. This knife goes in this space. The chopped chives go right there. Everything that is no longer needed does not belong at your station. You’ll need it later so if you’ve got a breathing space, wash up the thing you’ve used and put it aside for when you’ll next need it.
Know what to start first. Start the longest process first. It will be done by the time you get to the shortest process and by the time you’re done, you’ll be at the end.
Do not wait to finish. It isn’t finished until it’s delivered. As soon as it’s ready, let it go.
Slow down to speed up. Don’t panic when things get hectic. Calm your body, calm your mind. Hurry opens the door to mistakes. Get it right, and fast will happen.
Open your eyes and ears. Balance your internal and external awareness. Remain focused and open. Be receptive. React as needed to the world around you but stay focused on what you are doing.
Call and call back. Streamline and confirm essential communications. Follow up, update your team and turn information into intel you all can use to work together well.
Inspect and correct. Excellence requires vigilance. Check your work.
Aim for total utilization. Avoid wasting time, space, motion, resources or persons. Figure out how to tap into the flow of using them all and making them move in the direction you want them to go. Look to create a synergy that you can step into.
The real is that mise-en-place is about being able to “work clean.” It’s not about “creating order,” as in, “Gee, wow, I’ve organized my desk and doesn’t it look clean and cool?”
What mise-en-place says is, “I’m committed to move through all of these many steps I need to do and get them done right. When I’ve finished with all the steps of this project I am on now, I’ll wrap it up and deliver it. Then I’ll resume my stance at my station, put myself in a position where everything is in place for me to work on the next project, and I’ll deliver that one.”
With mise-en-place you can repeat as needed for as long as necessary and it all gets done right every time. You think about the process of making something from start to finish, and then you set up a system so you can get it done.
The system you create and maintain will allow you to stay focused on the most important thing at each moment. What you need to do to accomplish something gets done faster and more proficiently because everything you need to do it is right there in front of you.
It’s cooking, planned and executed like a military campaign, and the moves are eminently transferable to other life-things as well.
A companion YouTube video, also published by Rodale Press, “The Daily Meeze“ is a short introduction to the 30-minute daily planning session that Charnas recommends as a way to take mise-en-place out of the kitchen and apply it to regular life.
You may be able to figure out your own way to make your “meeze” your own. Think about it.
Another IPS (Inner Peace Symptom): an inclination to try and see whether you can pull something off. [Trying it for yourself can lead to some amazing discoveries.]
I am watching a young friend who’s stuck in a major cycle of suck. He won’t try anything new. I don’t understand why it’s so hard for him, but there it is. He sits around moaning about how his life is not working, but he won’t try doing anything different.
I don’t know. Maybe he took the Icarus story too much to heart. Icarus and his dad, a mythological inventor extraordinaire named Daedulus, were incarcerated in a famously inescapable prison by some king or other.
Daedulus, it says here, invented a way for humans to fly. (This was long before hot air balloons and heavier-than-air planes or anything.)
The inventor and his son, the story goes, strapped on wings made of wax and feathers that Daedulus designed. The wings worked and father and son escaped the fortress strong, but Icarus got so tripped out by the experience that he flew too close to the sun. The wax melted, the wings fell apart, and he crashed.
At this point, the Greek chorus cuts in and dolefully groans out the orthodox lesson: “The gods get angry at those who would dare to fly.” Uh-huh.
(It is worth noting that Daedulus also flew and he got away clean.)
Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick had an interesting take on the Icarus myth. He said, “I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be as is generally accepted, ‘don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as ‘forget the wax and feathers and do a better job on the wing.'”
Kubrick is famous for directing ground-breaking, innovative films (in their time) like Dr. Strangelove, Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket. He was really good at the art of trying something else.
We are, all of us, trained to fit in. The herd is stronger if everybody is all together, doing the same things, following the tried and true is the reasoning. Everybody agrees.
Don’t stand up. Don’t stand out. In Australia, they call it the “tall poppy” problem: Stand out and you’ll be cut down. In Japan they talk about the nail that sticks up. (It inevitably gets pounded down.) Sheesh! Taking a turn off the beaten path engenders dire predictions of eminent doom.
The easiest way to “fit in,” it seems, is not to start anything, not to try anything that is not-like-the-other-guys. It’s also a really good way to get stuck in suck…as my young friend is, unfortunately, finding out. The problem is you can get mired in a miserable bog of your own making that is a lot like being stuck in high school forever.
SEED THOUGHTS AND SUGGESTIONS
The antidote to all the heavy, herd-induced, foot-dragging, haul-that-barge-tote-that-bale mentality is to get into the habit of trying something else. It doesn’t seem to matter what you try, it seems. (Probably, though, experimentation with the latest pharmaceuticals might not be a grand idea.)
Software engineer Matt Cutts is featured in this You-Tube TEDTalk that was published in 2011. In it he advises, “Try something new for 30 days.”
If that sounds like too big a step for you, there’s an even smaller, tiny-step method, all ready-made and on-line.
In this YouTube video by CreativeLIVE, “28 to Make: Create Something New Every Day This Month,” you can join Makers Kate Bingaman-Burt, Ryan Putnam, Erik Marinovich and Lara McCormick in their romp through a series of daily creative project ideas that show up in your mailbox when you sign up for them. It’s a “way to get back into the habit of making cool stuff”, they say.
The book was published in 2000 and has since gone all over the world, being translated into 20 languages and over two dozen printings. It is a wondrous place to put your head if you are wondering what else you could try.
Go on…give these things a shot! Who knows what you might make?
Here’s a poem:
NOT A STORYTELLER
It just keeps going like that:
Erect a new idea and float it –
One more flying castle in the sky –
Then run-run-run to lasso the thing
And anchor it to the ground.
Work your buns off making it come real,
Then watch it crumple one more time
And dodge those stupid falling rocks
Coming down all around you.
The wise ones call it a treadmill, ya know.
I think I’m starting to get it.
That hamster in his cage has nothin’ on me except
The squeaky wheel’s starting to irritate the heck out of me,
And he just keeps on truckin’.
Tell me again, babe: You are doing this…WHY?
Where’d I park my Millenium Falcon?
There has GOT to be a better way to do this.
I think I figured out why I don’t write novels.
I’m not a storyteller, it seems.
My timelines fall apart and nothing makes any sense.
Journalist and radio producer Dave Isay firmly believes that every person has a story to tell, one that the world needs to hear, and he’s been working on figuring out how to gather these stories together so everyone can share in them. It all comes down to taking the time to listen.
THE LOST STORIES
It started, the guy says, when he was a young lad. He was a loner and a nerdy sort who preferred talking to older people.
One time he “interviewed” his grandparents and other family elders gathered for Thanksgiving using an old tape recorder he had found packed away in a box at his grandparent’s house. The old ones were happy to entertain the boy with their stories. He was enthralled and a good time was had by all.
The elders died after a time, he says, and the old tape he had made of their voices telling stories for their young relative was lost. Isay has always regretted that loss.
This animated YouTube video tells that story (in the inimitable StoryCorps style) as an introduction to the ongoing work of the massive oral history project that he initiated.
HEARING THE CALL
Years later, Isay was a 21-year-old, freshly graduated from NYU. He was waffling about whether he really wanted to follow the family tradition of slogging through medical school to become a doctor and took a year off to figure out what he wanted to do. While he was wrestling with that problem the confused young man decided to try his hand at being a journalist.
Isay’s very first attempt at putting together a documentary was for a story about the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a series of violent, spontaneous protests by the LGBT community against an early-morning police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay dance bar, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
The raid was part of the constant harassment and bullying the gay community faced during those times. It was a raid just like any other raid, but this time, someone got mad. Someone said, “Enough. Other people joined him. The angry protests spread and the Gay Liberation Movement was born.
In this YouTube video, “Remembering the Stonewall Riots” published in 2013 by Open Road Media, Martin Duberman, author of STONEWALL, talks about the significance of the riots.
Isay was really pleased with his work on that first documentary. It seemed to him that he had found his calling. He withdrew from medical school and started making documentaries. His favorites were about the ones about ordinary people.
The man’s life-work has been built on listening to stories. The company he built, Sound Portraits Productions, is an independent production company dedicated to telling stories about America’s ghettos, prisons and other neglected and hidden American communities in print, on the radio and on the internet. The company mission statement is emblazoned on the bottom of their emails: “Sound Portraits Productions…Documenting a Hidden America.”
IT’S BEEN DONE BEFORE
It’s not a new idea, nor one for which Isay takes credit. Instead he lists the ones he calls his heroes, other documentarians of the disenfranchised and the unheard:
Joseph Mitchel, the New York journalist of salon-keepers and street preachers
Dorethea Lange and Walker Evans, the great WPA photographers
Studs Terkel, oral historian extraordinaire
Alan Lomax, folk-life archivist
Alex Kotlowitz, documentarian of ghetto life.
Sound Portraits Productions went on to create award-winning radio documentaries that were featured on PBS.
Isay has said, “When we feel we’ve succeeded it’s because we’ve managed to expose – truthfully, respectfully – the hidden, forgotten, or under-heard voices of America. And where and when we fail it’s because we’re short of this mark.”
But the little boy who listened wanted to do more. So many people had stories they wanted to tell and the world needed to hear, but there was no way for them to tell the stories. Nobody even knew they were there.
STORYCORPS IS BORN AND GROWS AND GROWS
In October, 2003, the first StoryCorps soundproofed “Story Booth” opened in the Grand Central Terminal in New York City with an open invitation for people to interview one another. Friends, loved ones, even relative strangers were given the chance to conduct 40-minute interviews with help from the StoryCorps facilitators.
Anyone could make an appointment to record a session and it was a free service. One person was the interviewer, the other was the storyteller, relating some aspect of the life they’ve lived. The facilitator helped the participants record the interview.
Tens of thousands of people went for it. The storytellers and their listeners got a safe place where they could hold uninterrupted, meaningful conversations and ask and answer the important questions that very often get lost in the everyday daily grind of life. They also got a copy of the recording as a memento.
Another copy of the recording session was retained by the Story Corps and the stories became a weekly feature of the Morning Edition of NPR (National Public Radio) since 2005. (They’ve also been used to create animated shorts which can be viewed on the NPR website.)
The original Grand Central Station StoryBooth was closed down and a new one erected at Lower Manhattan’s Foley Square in July, 2005.
Meanwhile, that same year, StoryCorps converted two Airstream trailers into mobile recording studios and launched them from the Library of Congress parking lot. They’ve been touring the country ever since.
Here’s a YouTube video published by StoryCorps, “On the Road Since 2015,” that illuminates that story.
A second semi-permanent StoryBooth opened in San Francisco in 2008. Over time, additional booths opened in Atlanta, Chicago, Milwaukee and Nashville as well.
The StoryBooths, both permanent and mobile, were the major collection points for the stories at first, but not everybody could make it to them. The organization developed a couple of community programs to collect these other stories as well.
There’s the “Door-to-Door” service that sends teams of StoryCorps facilitators to temporary recording locations in the United States for several days at a time.
There’s also the “StoryKit” service that was started when the New York booth closed down in 2011 for a time due to a lack of funding. Professional-quality, portable recording devices were shipped to participants around the country for this one.
Another workaround that was developed was the “Do-It-Yourself” service that allowed individuals to download free step-by-step interview instructions, equipment recommendations and a “Great Question” list. This one was for people who wanted to conduct interviews using their own recording equipment.
A DAY FOR LISTENING
In 2008 StoryCorps launched an initiative called “the National Day of Listening” to encourage Americans to record stories with family members, friends and loved ones on Black Friday, the pre-Christmas shopping bonanza that occurs the day after Thanksgiving.
Then in 2015, the day was rebranded as “The Great Thanksgiving Listen” when StoryCorps launched their StoryCorps App. Teams worked with teachers and high school students across the country. The kids interviewed their elders and recorded their stories over the holiday weekend on an app on their smartphones.
The free app was developed by StoryCorps with the support of a 2015 TED Prize and 2014 Knight Prototype Fund award. It allows users to record the interviews on a smartphone. Users can upload their interviews to the StoryCorps.me website.
Over the years, there have been collaborations and initiatives with groups, organizations and institutions from all over the country that target various segments of the American population as well. Stories have been collected from the military, from people suffering memory loss, from Latinos and from African-Americans, from LGBTQ community, from people in prisons and the criminal justice system, and from those personally affected by the events of September 11, 2001.
Also, there’s the StoryCorps Legacy community program which partners with medical and disease specific organizations to provide opportunities for people with serious illness and their relatives to record and share their life story as well.
A LIVING RECORD
With the participants’ permission, the stories collected by all of these efforts (including the ones recorded on smartphones) are archived in the Library of Congress’ American Folklore Center. It constitutes the largest single collection of “born-digital” recorded voices in history. It is a massive living record of American lives by the people who lived it and it is magic.
The stories are slices of life that have been used in a wide range of projects. The collection has been useful as a resource for various researchers in language, speech-recognition, and history among other things..
Over the years StoryCorp founder Dave Isay has published five books full of stories from the collection as well.
One of the participants who conducted an oral-history interview with her grandmother in the Grand Central Station StoryBooth was featured in a Library of Congress blog post about the archive and how it was made.
Sharon DeLevie-Orey explained, “Last year my sister and I came to StoryCorps with my then-91-year-old grandmother. We had this fantastic interview, in which my grandma was candid and funny and loving.
“Yesterday she died. I just took out my StoryCorps CD and noticed the date, a year to the day. Tomorrow will be her funeral. I could only listen to about 20 seconds before bursting into tears,” she says, “but I am so grateful that I have this. Sure, I could have taped her anytime in the last 41 years. But I didn’t. Now the reward is so huge.”
Her conclusion: “Everyone should do StoryCorps—because we don’t live forever.”
Sharon’s story is echoed by many others who have participated in the StoryCorps process as well. For many it was the “best 40 minutes of my life” that added meaning and mana to their ordinary life.