Small Move, Big Change by Caroline Arnold

Did you set a resolution in January that has yet to pan out? Good news: you’re not alone. Great news: this book might help you get back on track.

Arnold, Caroline. Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently. New York: Viking, 2014. Print.

Summary: Arnold unpacks a methodology for setting teeny-tiny goals with itsy-bitsy implementation plans. Given time (a few weeks), those bits and pieces accumulate and transform into the behemoth we all crave: change for the better.

Critique: According to Arnold, 88% of all Americans fail on their resolutions and goal-setting. Part of the problem roots in how we state our goals.

I want to get…(fill in the blank: a novel published, buff, more organized, etc.).

Or, I want to be…(again fill in: a writer, rich, tidy, etc).

In order to get or be anything, one must first do. So, to set an attainable goal, start by rewording it with what you can do.

The next trick requires an understanding of how the brain does things, which is primarily by habit. Habits, or auto-pilot behaviors, form because the brain prefers speed and efficiency. Technically, so do most of us. Do you really want to stop and think about how to tie your shoes or brush your teeth every.single.time as if it was the first time you ever tied your shoes or brushed your teeth? Who’s got time for that? Not you, says your brain, so the neurons carve out some deep, habitual grooves which lead to rapid-fire auto-actions. But if you want to be/get something new, you must develop new habits, which means you must fill in those deep grooves and carve new ones.

To work with the brain’s neuroplastic abilities — that is, its ability to constantly rewire — Arnold maps out cunning ways to introduce tiny behavioral changes, one or two at a time. And when she says tiny, she means TINY. Rather than tackle your diet by ransacking all the junk from your kitchen cabinets, simply identify one problem food or eating behavior and work with it.

Set a time for that new action to occur (every Wednesday at 9 o’clock, for example.) Allow that time to trigger the behavior so that, eventually, you do it without thinking. Thus, it becomes a habit. Or, pin the new behavior on to an already established habit (ex: I will always consult my *new* to-do list before I check email.) Dress your new behaviors in positive language. In other words, rather than obsesses over limits or restrictions (I CAN’T eat junk or candy), emphasize new permissions, privileges, and rewards (I CAN enjoy a healthy snack).

Writers who struggle to get in a bit of writing (especially on days when they actually have time for it but don’t seem to be able to make it happen) are sure to take away from this book many useful tips and tricks. Plus, it’s printed in a really big font, which means it is a quick read. Big font, small time, you might say.

“Lego” by Judit Klein.

Having read this book a couple of months ago, I can firmly attest that the processes seem to work. Breaking down my big, vaguely stated goals and working at them one action at a time was a bit like dumping out the Lego bin of my life’s dreams. But bit by bit, the pieces are fitting together and a strange new landscape…or, erm…a jet plane is beginning to take shape.

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver

oliver_poetryhandbookMuch like a quark, this book is small yet packed with the powers to either grip or unravel the universe.

Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook. New York: Harvest, 1994. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (craft book)

Summary: Winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, and all-around linguistic seductress Mary Oliver shares her insights on the nature and construct of poetry, language, and the communication that takes place beneath the words on the page.

Critique: Like her poetry, Oliver’s handbook is brief, to-the-point, and powerful. She gets right the to point and does not dilly-dally with a lot of rhetorical set-up or explanatory embellishments, as the typical poetry textbook or writing craft book might. Her examples are salient. The writing is unquestionably clear.

Writers equipped with this text will gain invaluable lessons including: the difference between a rock and stone as implied by their phonics rather than their geology; the Romeo and Juliet love affair that is the writing process, a drool-inducing analysis of Robert Frost’s poetry; the liquids and mutes of the English language and how they can combine effectively; and one of the clearest explanations I have ever found on poetic construction, from scansion to stresses, from meters to feet.

When the Sharks Gather

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When the Sharks Gather: How Rituals Can Make Us Better Writers

Before I write, there’s this little thing that I do. Call it a ritual. I do it the same way every time. And according to neuroscience research, my little ritual is actually priming my brain to deliver a focused and confident writing session.

Here’s how it goes…

Everyday at 5:30 a.m., I zombie out of bed. I shuffle through the dark to the kitchen and switch on the electric teapot. I fill the pour-over with coffee and stack it atop my blue pot-bellied mug. As the water heats to life, I head to the living room to turn on the twinkle lights strung up since the holidays. Laptop boots. Notebooks and pens assemble. Coffee trickles into cup.

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“Chocolate” by John Loo. Image CC.

Lastly, I break off a nub of chocolate from the stash in my goody-drawer. I hold this nub lovingly and whisper to it a little prayer of sorts. Seems appropriate. Chocolate is, after all, theobroma, food of the gods. Muse munchums. To this heavenly food I give my thanks for its nourishment and my request to please nourish me now during my creative hijinx. I savor that nub of chocolate. Then I slide into my reclining wingback chair and set off on a two-hour writing jollification!

My writing sessions are intensely focused, fun, and productive.

But is that all really thanks to a superstitious pattern of actions? Francesca Gino and Michael Norton would answer yes. In a way-too short co-authored article in the Scientific American, the researchers explain that ritual work, whether or not they are rational or irrational. And they work even if you don’t believe in the efficacy of rituals.

In the Lab

“Crossed Fingers” by Evan-Amos. Image CC.

Gino and Norton conducted experiments where participants were given a task, but half of them first had to carry out a small, superstitious acts or rituals like crossing their fingers or touching a lucky talisman. The half that engaged in the ritual performed better overall on the task. They gave invested more effort, demonstrated enhanced confidence, and did better on future tasks that did not require a ritual. (Even participants who said before the experiment that they did not believe in rituals or superstitions performed better when they executed a ritualistic or superstitious behavior!)

And the results seem to be consistent around the world and across cultures. Hardly a surprise, considering how many rituals we see globally. Rituals seem to decorate the entire tapestry of human history. In the 1940s, anthropologists observed a ritualistic pattern in an indigenous tribal community in the South Pacific.Whenever the fisherman set out to fish in the calm lagoon, they just hopped into the water and fished. But whenever they set out to fish in the shark infested sea, they always performed a ritual to seek protection from the gods.

Whenever uncertainty or risk run high, we humans need a ritual.

The Royals celebrate after winning the 2015 #WorldSeries.

Royals celebrate their epic 2015 victory! From Arturo Pardavila III. Image CC.

Sports psychologists have seen and studied the ritual phenomenon for a long time. Michael Jordan always wore his North Carolina shorts under his Bulls uniform. Boston Red Sox third basemen Wade Boggs wrote the Hebrew word “chai” (living) in the dirt before each at bat. The entire Kansas City Royals team spritzed on some Victoria’s Secret perfume and listened to the same rap song before each game. Between every serve, Maria Sharipova does this seemingly anal five-count foot shuffle-shuffle-shuffle. The list goes on and on.

And did these athletes enjoy a better performance? Well, I’ll let you Wikipedia the results if you don’t already know.

Gray Matters
The real question is why? Why do rituals have this effect on us?

If you fMRI the brain while someone performs a ritual (praying, meditating, or some other ritualized action), what you will see is a deactivation of the parietal lobe, the area most associated with processing and sensory stimulus. Turning off your parietal lobe is like disconnecting from the world around you. Shutting off “reality.”

The next thing you’ll see is the frontal lobes fully activate. These lobes are involved in our ability to focus and concentrate.

Finally, you’ll also see the amygdala go into hyperdrive. This area of the brain is thought to be the center of our primal emotions: fear, joy, panic, relaxation. A hyperactive amygdala is not necessarily a condition you want to provoke in the body. See Norman Doidge’s new book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, for some pretty disturbing disorders (rife with panic attacks) linked to an inflamed amygdala. But in the case of rituals, the amygdala’s inflammation produces more joyful and relaxed emotions, leaving fear and panic in the backseat.

And with your brain operating in this manner, what you get is that intensely revved up flow state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified in the brains of the world top athletes, artists, and business leaders. You know this state of mind if you’ve ever gotten so wrapped up in a task that the external world just peeled away and it was impossible to tell if a minute spanned an hour or an hour spanned a millisecond.

Ritual or Habitual?
But herein lies the rub: to get your brain into this altered state, you have to perform a ritual, and not just some rutted habit. On the surface, rituals and habits seem almost identical. They are both sequenced or patterned behaviors that recur in the same way. The difference between rituals and habits boils down to intent. You do a ritual in order to achieve a particular outcome: hit the ball out of the park, sink fifty three-pointers, ace every serve, win the World Series or write one helluva good novel!

If we look back on my morning ablutions, my trek around the house switching on appliances and making the coffee is a habit. I do it the same way because it turned out to be the most efficient system, not because I think it will make me a better writer. Breaking off the chocolate, whispering my little prayer, and savoring the chocolate? That is definitely a ritual because I certainly duplicate that pattern of actions with a desired outcome in mind. Besides being the food of gods, chocolate has also been shown to relax the brain and promote creativity. So it’s basically my vitamin-W (vitamin Write).

sharks-jambigenie

Jambi the Genie from Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

Yes, I know it’s Dumbo’s feather. I don’t technically need it. I already have the ability to go sit down for two hours and knock out a couple thousand words. But diving into a writing project is not that different from plunging into shark infested waters. And if doing a little ritual is going to help me maneuver with poise among a bloodthirsty flock of sharp-toothed torpedoes, well then…mekalekahi-mekahini-ho!

The best part about this research on rituals is that you can truly tailor-make your own ritual. So long as you do it with a desired outcome in mind, it does not matter what actions go into your ritual. Cross your heart. Light a candle. Whisper a chant. Turn in circles three times and bark like a dog. Anything goes!

So what is your ritual (or should I say writual)? What do you do when the sharks begin to circle?

For further reading:

How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation by Andrew Newberg

The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity by Norman Doidge

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

sharks

The Goshawk by T. H. White

goshawkWhite, T. H. The Goshawk. 1951. Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audio, 2015. CD.

Genre: nonfiction/nature memoir

Summary: White chronicles his misadventures and many mishaps in an attempt to tame a goshawk. He knows only what he has learned from old books. Nonetheless, he is driven by his love of the medieval and ancient cultures who reserved the designation of “gentleman” for the men who mastered the mighty raptors. Using only kindness and persistence, White proceeds to deprive the bird of sleep for up to nine days. But whatever the bird endures, so too must the falconer, or ostringer. Man and bird wear each other down, but in their delirium, they might just learn to communicate, confess, and conspire as equals–or die trying!

Critique: White is best known for his Arthurian sequence, The Once and Future King. His finesse as a craftsman of lush worlds and compelling characters shines in this work of nonfiction. Structurally, White divvies the tale by days of the week, as if falconry was one of the most mundane weekly activities. Something you or I might pencil into our day runners or tap into our Google calendars. The result is a successful dismantling of the wall that might otherwise divide the modern reader from the ancient sport.

The accounts of man and bird are a mix of funny, insightful, tragic, and absurd. The willful, fierce, and stubborn hawk, lovingly named Gos, quickly intoxicates White. He alternately admires and pities the feral freedom embodied in this creature’s every behavior, expression, and gesture. But something tantalizingly vibrant and ultimately doomed lurks within the potential partnership between man and bird of prey.

On its surface, this text of reluctant animal/man friendship reads much like the classic boy/beast stories such as White Fang and Old Yeller. But, deep in its subaceous layers resides the ultimate writer’s craft book. Move over, Anne Lamott! White has a literal bird-by-bird approach that is just the theriac a writer needs to undertake the dangerous task that is writing.

Like falconry, writing bids us to tame a wild thing: the imagination! It is risky and you can bet on many sleepless nights, plenty of repeated failures, and some bloodshed. Sometimes, a partnership emerges and the writer yawps with success. Other times, the jesses break and the beast flaps away into the dark forest, leaving the writer crouched and weeping. Either way, the writer–like the falconer–must choose to respond with genteel kindness, compassion, and tenacity. Or else forever earn the impermeable hatred of the mythical creature uniquely capable of plucking out the stories hiding in the tall grasses.

Get Lost: A Story for Writers Who Haven’t Found Their Way

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When a girl goes camping all by herself, as I did this past weekend, she is bound to undergo at least one significant spiritual transformation, or discover at least one profound truth about her inner self.

I will share with you one of the profundities I discovered—maybe the greatest one: I do not own a keychain bottle opener.

Whenever I have gone camping in the past and wanted to open a beer, I grabbed my darling’s keys and k’chih! I drove three hours to Utah, picked my campsite, assembled my lunch, and pulled the beer out of the cooler before I realized I could not open it.

Woman with bottle

Image from beernexus.com.

Never fear! I did not let this minor packing snafu stop me from enjoying that beer! A beer bought specifically to celebrate my first time camping all alone.

Lunch consumed and beer guzzled, I set about to camp. I erected the tent. Chopped firewood. I even managed to attach the propane tank to the cooking stove without blowing anything up! I was so jazzed that I took off the next day for a hike!

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Image my own.

The trail I selected roved up and down through a couple wind- and water-carved canyons. The tops of the canyons were deserts, while their crevices frilled with miniature forests. Because this was a National Park (specifically Canyonlands), the trail was marked at intervals with stacked rock formations, or cairns. I roved, drunk on the sights of red sandstone cliffs topped with white limestone scallops. I was giddy from all my outdoorsy prowess, despite all the horrific scenarios I expected (and imagined in gory detail) would befall me. Punishment for attempting something so daunting all on my own. But there I was, creative problem-solver and fearless explorer, confidently striding through the rugged wilderness, negotiating a strenuous trail. Alone. Independent. Powerful. Unstoppable!

The brief winter afternoon was well spent by the time I about-faced on the trail and started the trek back to my car. I maneuvered the naturally terraced rock steps leading to the bottom of a canyon. I gave a quick glance to the positions of the cairns ahead, and then returned my focus to my feet. I was especially good at tripping in shoes—no doubt because most of my agility training happens barefoot in the Aikido dojo. My feet do not know how to keep me alive with shoes on.

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Image my own.

Eventually, I began to notice all the shattered bits of erosion littering every nook and cranny of the canyon. I was struck by how the cliffs looked so majestic from a distance, but up close were all destruction and crumble. These massive geological castles were actually has beens. Ruins.

That notion resonated deep. I could look so confident, so proficient to my friends, my family, even to strangers who stood at a distance. But if they got too close, they would no doubt see just how broken and crumbled I was. Controlling my small universe and all the people in it was how I had formerly kept everyone at an appropriate distance, away from all my debris. I wanted—needed—to keep it all hidden from view.

Not so for these mountains. Not so for all these crumbling cliffs and ridges. They displayed their messes, their sloped mounds of talus, like the creased and pleated skirts of a ball gown. And why not? What were those talus piles and those shards of rubble under my feet but the steady signs of progress. Change. Transformation.

What had those shards and granules been before they were part of mountains? Some might have been magma. Some might have been pyroclasts, or flying rocks. Some were undoubtedly beach sand, for that is what the Needles of Canyonlands are: ancient, compacted, eroding spires of a beach. And what were those sands before that? Maybe some hard candy the ocean sucked on gummed until it found what was truly sweetest at the core, and thus spat the sugary sands ashore. And now that they were rocks and granules, they would travel who knew where in the world, carried in water, wind, human pocket, or animal dander. No matter where they went, they would inevitably keep turning into something else.

How wonderful be in a constant state of flux. Slow, yes—but continual. Almost imperceptible, yes—but happening nonetheless.

“I am changing!” they shout. “Watch me, if you dare!”

No wonder the mountains and canyons put their metamorphosis on display. Change was remarkable.

I was so titillated in that moment that I almost shouted in chorus with the canyons, cliffs, and mountains: I, too, am changing! I am eroding and growing at the same time! I am thirty five and in therapy (for the first time) dealing with my codependency issues (also for the first time because I never realized I had a problem).

But here I was, a person addicted to other people—addicted to caretaking others while neglecting myself—spending time alone in the wilderness. Caring for myself. Keeping myself warm, fed, and hydrated. Creatively solving my own problems (who needs a bottle opener, anyway)! The realization that my abilities were numerous paired up with the notion that my imperfect body was a gorgeous container for my imperfect, yet beautiful, soul. This epiphany shackled my feet in place, and for a long time all I could do was stand at the bottom of a canyon next to pipsqueak stream, and point my teary face up to the sun.

When I was ready to resume my hike, I could not locate a single cairn in any direction. They were gone.

The instant you realize you are lost, a hot, heavy pressure blankets the back of your neck. You can no longer hear anything outside your own skin. The world sort of tilts. No, not tilts. It transposes in an instant, like a picture you’re editing into Photoshop. One-click flip! What was left becomes right and what was down becomes up.

The inner compass of my body whooshed around and I become a snow globe of directions.

Let’s see. I had been walking north because the sun was on my left. To the west. Right? West is left on a map? But had the sun really been on my left or had it been on my right? I couldn’t really remember. Now it was dead ahead. No matter. I knew that the trailhead where my car was parked was to the…north. No—east! It had to be east. Right? I mean left. I mean…shit!

I tried backtracking—or at least meandering in the direction I was pretty sure was backwards. No bushes, no cascading rock stairways looked at all familiar, memorable, or remarkable.

I fumed. How could I let this happen? How could I, at my age, get lost? And so quickly, too!

Written out, it seems as though I plunged headlong contemplating those shattered rocks for hours, but really, it was no more than a minute or two.

compassBut that was enough time. In fact, that’s all the time it takes to lose your way in your own life. You think you know where you’re headed. You think you see the way all set out and marked. You get cozy. You get distracted. And then the next thing you know, the cairns and waymarkers have vanished. You.are.lost.

Lost. Off track. Misplaced. Displaced. Off course. That summed up the entirety of 2015 for me. I thought I knew where my life was going. I thought I knew a few of the things coming next. Marriage. Honeymoon. Celebration. The holidays. A new year. A new me. The little cairns were all there. All plotted on my calendar, getting ever closer.

And then, I got cozy. I got distracted with a new job that paid little and fed lots to my addiction to others. I over-invested. I let my writing wither. I left my beloved partner to wither, too. And when I finally looked up, everything my life had been was gone. Everything I had had. Had enjoyed. Had expected. Had taken for granted. Had known. Had loved.

Talus. That was all I had left. How fitting that I was now blindly roving between walls of talus.

The thicket of bushes before me abruptly shook hard, all rustle and fuss. I jumped back, all defense and gasp. Three deer, all does, trotted out of that thicket and into a clearing where they could watch me with their glistening black marble eyes. Then, before I would whisper, “Hello,” they bounded away, light as packing peanuts on narrow hooves that thudded heavy has jackhammers. I felt their departure more than I heard it.

For a moment, I stood dumb. Then I giggled.

“Wow!” I confessed to the canyon’s wind-carved ear arches. And to think, I would not have seen those lovely animals had I not wandered off the trail. Had I not gotten lost…

cairnThe irony made me chuckle, but the notion swiftly evolved. What if I was never “off track”? What if my life—any life, for that matter—had but one track it could follow? No matter what forks and branches arose, no matter what choices were made, the way I was going was the way my life needed to go. I could relinquish any regrets for the roads I chose not to travel in the past. Those paths I did not pursue. What were they but ghosts? And I could release any frustration surrounding my current trajectory because to get cantankerous with my present position was to yearn for forks, branches, and options that had not yet come my way. The specters of future roads not yet built.

How much of my life had I spent pining for those ghosts and specters? How much had I been missing in my present reality—what gifts and splendors like those deer—when I yearned for where I was not and where I could not be?

And where else could I be but right here? Right now. And if I was always right here right now, then maybe I was always precisely where I needed to be. Always on track. Always changing. Eroding. Rebuilding. Transforming. Never lost.

I stared at the deer tracks embroidered in the ribbons of sand zippered with a slender stream. The tracks curved over the strange grid of hiking boot tread. Not the tread of my hiking boots, but someone else’s. Many someones! The boot prints traveled several crooked yards, then disappeared where the sand gave way to the rocky carpet of the canyon floor. Also precisely where a cairn sat sun tanning. Not far off was another. Another. And another.

The way.

Had it been there all along? Or had it only appeared when I was ready to see it?

I suspect the answer to either question is yes.