Story A Day 6: Tea

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I add two teaspoons of sugar and ‘just a drip’ of milk. That is the way she has always liked it, with ‘just a drip.’

Every cup of tea I have made her for over forty years has had just a drip of milk.

Back when I thought it was worthwhile to argue about that sort of thing, I used to insist that she couldn’t possible taste a drip of milk. I told her about chemistry, and about proportions, all of the kinds of nonsense a know-it-all kid who turns into a know-it-all adult likes to go on about.

I didn’t know then about the power of the ritual, about how all the parts matter, even if they don’t make much sense.

I put the tea on the wooden tray, the one with the peonies painted on it. ‘All the way from France’ she used to say, even though ‘Made in China’ was stamped on the bottom.

I used to argue about that, too.

Now, I just put the two cups of tea on the tray with the napkins I embroidered in home economics class. I thought they were useless, then, but now I know better.

I carry the tray up the stairs to her room. The sun is across her bed. Her hair a halo on the pillow.

I moved the chair next to her night stand weeks ago, it’s not like it will be in her way.

The tea tray goes on the dresser.

Her tea goes on the night stand to grow cold, the cheerful napkin will be folded perfectly until I take it back downstairs.

My mug is in my right hand, my left hand curls around her fingers where they rest on the quilt.

After all this time, my tears are always silent.

I drink them with my tea.

 

 

© Christine Hennebury, 2018

Story A Day #5: Courage

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I’m lying on my side, curled into a comma. My eyes are squeezed shut, the blanket is over my ear.

I should probably get up. It would be the brave thing to do.

I should get up, go downstairs, and find out what that thunk was.

That would the grown-up approach.

Then I could laugh at the knickknack, picture frame, heavy book that caused me all the distress. I could post it on Instagram, on Twitter. I could get sympathy from all my friends who live alone and who have been terror-struck by a fallen object in the dark. I can picture the likes, the hearts, the long string of comments saying ‘Same.’ The idea gives me courage.

I slow my breathing and uncurl under the blankets. I toss them off and swing my legs over the side of the bed.

I’m an adult, a very capable adult, and I can take care of myself.

I roll my shoulders back. I shift into standing.

I grab my phone from my dresser, flick on the the flashlight. Overhead lights will wake me completely, I don’t want that.

My first step shoots a creaking noise across the floorboards into the hall. I imagine them cracking, like the ice on a pond, disaster imminent.

I hear the voice from downstairs.

He just says, “Oh.”

Story A Day #4: Satisfaction

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Depending on how you looked at it, I was doing what was expected of me.

I started with laying out everything for his breakfast, then I set out his clean clothes.

The bills were next on my list, then I assembled everything I needed to clean the house.

The kids’ homework, a birthday card for his Mom, his shirts to iron. I followed that with the magazines about house decorating, and the latest book about how to find fulfillment in your service to your family.

The evening paper next to a home-cooked meal was the finishing touch.

When I stood back and considered it all, it was quite satisfying.

Setting the pile on fire was more satisfying still.

Story A Day May #3: Buried

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Buried

She replaced the books, the sweaters, the stuffed bear and rabbit that used to sit on her bed. She tucked them all into the wooden trunk with the crocheted blanket her grandmother had made and then closed the lid. The letter was at the bottom, still in the envelope, held in place by the weight of everything she had placed on top.

It was a foolish thing to keep. She knew it was.

She was Pandora, trapping hope in her chest and wishing that it would all somehow work out.

If she didn’t actually answer, there was always that chance.

Story A Day #2: Explorers

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I’m taking part in Story-A-Day May 2018 so I will be posting a piece of flash fiction every day this month. Each 7 days I will have a new theme, this first week the theme is ‘Open’. My interpretation of the theme will be broad.

Explorers

A finger of light from the open door pointed toward them.

It was not an invitation.

Even knowing it was a trap, they didn’t resist.

Story A Day 2018 #1

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I’m taking part in Story-A-Day May 2018 so I will be posting a piece of flash fiction every day this month. Each 7 days I will have a new theme, this first week the theme is ‘Open’. My interpretation of the theme will be broad.

She stood at the bottom of the steps, her arms held wide. She was welcoming me but this was no homecoming. I knew this game.

I would struggle but eventually my wings would stick. Then she would creep forward and cover me in silken threads until I was still.

I slid back into the car, turned the keys and drove away.

For all I know, she’s standing there still.

 

N is for Nerves

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An ink drawing on white paper of two stick figures in martial arts uniforms standing in front of 5 stick figure judges who are sitting in chairs. The competitors appear to be shaking from nervousness (they have motion lines around the top of their bodies.)

During April, I’m writing 26 posts for the A to Z Blog Challenge. I’m combining my skills as a writer, a life coach, and a martial artist (2nd degree black belt in ITF Taekwondo) to create a series of posts about applying aspects of TKD to life outside of martial arts. Whenever possible, I’ll include a little Taekwondoodle to illustrate what I’m talking about.

I can remember the weeks leading up to my first TKD belt test and the weeks leading up to my first competition. Two of the most nerve wracking occasions of my life.

I’ve done job interviews before and I defended my MA thesis, those were intimidating but they were brain work. Both of those occasions require me to think on my feet and to integrate information (that I have been working with for a long time) to address new questions – that’s an easily accessible skill set for me.

Standing up in front of experts and demonstrating patterns & sparring is a whole different story. Not only did I have to KNOW the things, I had to be able to SHOW the things – I had to make my body do the things that my brain understood.

I’m sure that sort of thing is routine for people who have been involved in sports their whole lives.* I’m not saying it is easier for them but it is more of a regular part of their lives so they have ways of dealing with it. I had no mechanisms in place. I practiced at home and in class but I was overwhelmed at the thought of actually doing it.

However, TKD was important enough to me to make it worth it to put myself through the experiences of competition and belt-testing. If I wanted to stay in TKD – yes, please!- then I had to endure these things.

 

An ink drawing on white paper of two stick figures in martial arts uniforms standing in front of 5 stick figure judges who are sitting in chairs. The competitors appear to be shaking from nervousness (they have motion lines around the top of their bodies.)

Here are the lessons I have brought from those experiences into the rest of my life:

1) Nerves are not inherently a bad thing.

I was nominated for a community award a few years ago and I was a bit nervous about it. A friend of mine said ‘Nervous is good that means that it is important to you.’ I’ve been carrying that gem around for a while but lately Master Downey has been saying something that adds even more value to that statement.

Master Downey also a psychologist so he regularly brings those skills to his teaching.

He says that nerves are just nerves. They are a natural part of certain experiences and that it is not the nerves themselves that cause us trouble. It’s our thoughts about those nerves that derail us. If we think that feeling nervous means that we are unprepared, then we start feeling bad about our abilities and we throw ourselves off. If we think that our nervousness means that we shouldn’t do this, we won’t be able to concentrate.

However, if we accept that nerves just happen sometime we can reduce the effect they have on our performance.

Also, I can’t remember if he said this or if I just pulled it out of my memory because it fits so well with that train of thought but we can also benefit from thinking of our nervousness as excitement. We think of excitement as a positive thing, nervousness as negative, but in our bodies, they feel pretty similar. I have had some success in reframing a feeling of nervousness into excitement, saying ‘I’m excited about my belt test tomorrow.’ Instead of saying ‘I am so nervous about my test tomorrow.’ – it doesn’t always reduce the feeling but it works often enough to make it worth it. You can read more about that nervous/excitement thing here https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/03/can-three-words-turn-anxiety-into-success/474909/ and watch a video here. https://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/485297/turn-anxiety-into-excitement/

2) You get used to those challenging situations.

The more often you do something the less intimidating it is. It seems that situations like competitions and belt tests are much harder to think about than to do – and I have found the same thing applies with meetings, presentations, and annoying phone calls.

After many, many belt tests and a fair number of competitions, I am much less freaked out by them than I was. I will worry about specific aspects of an upcoming belt test (left handed double punch board break – I’m looking at you!) or a few moves in my competition pattern but the experience as whole is less overwhelming.

So, in a way, it is probably better to do these things as often as you can (Yes, I get how impossible that seems.) so each instance becomes less of a big deal. When you build on the success of having gotten through the challenge over and over, you can approach the next situation with less fear.

3) Failure is not actually that bad.

Okay, so I know that some of you will want to rush in to tell me that the situation below does not constitute a failure because I got up and participated and so on. However, I did not do what I intended to do AND this is an example of the sorts of thing most TKD students are thinking of when they worry about competition, so we’re going to call it failure. I don’t think *I* am a failure but I did fail to do what I set out to do and I think it’s a useful thing for people to read about. I know you may want to rush in to reframe this situation so I will feel better but I don’t feel bad about it, and I don’t feel bad calling it failure. It’s a valuable framework for me.

A few years ago at my first competition as a black belt, I did three moves of my pattern (Gae Baek, if you are wondering) and realized I had skipped the actual third (and fourth) move and I was doing the fifth instead. Skipping a move means you get zero on your pattern.

The sensible and honourable thing to do is to continue the rest of your pattern and see what happens.

I did not do that.

Instead, I froze. Then I returned to my ready posture and hung my head while my cheeks burned with embarrassment.

My brain was hopping with harsh, but not at all realistic, thoughts that went like this: I knew this pattern and I couldn’t believe that I messed it up in that specific way. My instructors had worked so hard to help me and I was letting them down. I looked like an idiot. My husband and sons had come ringside to watch me and now I had made a fool of myself. I outranked the person next to me and I was not being a good example for her.

It went on and on, you know what brains can be like.

But here’s the thing. I didn’t die of humiliation. The ground didn’t open and swallow me. No one criticized me. (they only reminded me that next time I should keep going)

In fact, my failure to do my pattern in that competition didn’t actually mean anything about me as a person.

It sucked and it felt terrible but the feeling passed pretty quickly and I went on to the next thing.

When I think about myself standing there with my head drooping down, I don’t feel angry or sad.

Instead, I feel compassion for myself.

I was doing something that I found hard but I did it anyway. And when I consider the situation as a whole, I realize that there were some factors before I went up to compete that I will need to accommodate for any other time I am competing.

So, my failure served me well, really.

Now I know that messing up isn’t the worst thing that can happen. I know that I can recover from it. And I know how to deal with outside factors that affect my performance.

So, the lesson of N is for Nerves is that being nervous is not fun but it doesn’t mean anything about you as a person – it’s no different than having an itch when you are wearing a wool sweater. Be kind to yourself while you get used to that idea.

*Sidenote: I really admire the way that sporty people can throw their all into a game or a series and then deal with losing. There is a certain resilience that people gain from those experiences that I really envy. I try not to be a sore loser overall but I have not built up the emotional muscle to invest deeply in a game or event and then let go. I am more likely not to invest as deeply so it is easier to let go of it. I have gotten used to things like competitions and belt tests but I still don’t have that specific type of resilience – hopefully it will come.

M is for Master, Ma’am, Ms. and Mr.

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I was sick for a few days and got off track with posting but I’ll be posting 2-3 letters per day between now and April 30 so I can catch up. Sorry for the service interruption. 🙂

During April, I’m writing 26 posts for the A to Z Blog Challenge. I’m combining my skills as a writer, a life coach, and a martial artist (2nd degree black belt in ITF Taekwondo) to create a series of posts about applying aspects of TKD to life outside of martial arts. Whenever possible, I’ll include a little Taekwondoodle to illustrate what I’m talking about.

At Taekwondo class, I call my instructors Master Downey and Master D. I call the other students Ms /Mr or Sir/Ma’am – Sure, sometimes with little kids or with a close friend, I’ll slip up and say their first name (Sorry, Kevin!) but mostly I remember.

Just like bowing in to the Dojang, I like the kind of atmosphere that the formality creates. We are not here to hang out, we are here to learn and to practice. The honorific titles (Ms/Mr/Sir/Ma’am) and the earned titles (Master/Grand Master) reinforce that.

Those titles give a shape to our interactions and the fact that among students we are all ‘Ms/Mr’ reminds us that we can all learn from each other. Using those titles or Sir/Ma’am can help us focus on our joint purpose, and it creates a useful atmosphere for instruction.*

Two people in white martial arts uniforms bowing to each other, the person on the right is saying 'sir' the person the left is saying 'ma'am'

The fact that we call our instructors by a different, earned, title shows that they have worked long and practiced hard to get where they are. Frankly, if you had told me before I started martial arts that I would be willing to use the word ‘Master’ when addressing someone, I would have sprained my eyeball when rolling it.

However, in TKD, it feels appropriate to consistently recognize someone’s mastery of our sport. It’s no different than addressing someone with a PhD as Doctor. The fact that these titles are earned is a useful thing to consider – it puts that skill set within reach of those of us who are determined and dedicated.

Where’s the lesson for the rest of my life?

Well, putting this formality into practice in class has made me think a bit more about how I interact with people outside of class and I have found that valuable.

I’m not suggesting that as a society we should go back to calling everyone by titles all the time but I do think that we should consider what level of formality we want to have in given situations. It can be useful to realize that we can recognize someone’s valuable/lived experience by using a title, or by choosing our language carefully. That doesn’t mean that we need to automatically surrender our own authority, nor does it mean that we should let others dictate how formal a situation should be.

Instead, I recommend thinking about what we are trying to achieve, the atmosphere we are trying to create, and about what the other person is expecting from your interaction.

Once you have considered all of that, you can decide how to proceed.

You don’t have to speak deferentially to someone who is expecting it but it will change the nature of your interaction – you have to decide whether that makes sense for right now.

If you want a formal work meeting, then you can set the tone in your introductions or in your opening statements.

If someone else ‘pulls rank’ on you – for example, calling you by your first name in an email and then signing it ‘Principal Smith’ then you can recognize what they are trying to do and decide how you want to react to that.

It’s wise to make yourself aware of the level of formality expected or implied in your interactions and then consciously choose whether to continue or to disrupt it. Obviously, though, you will have to deal with the consequences of your choice but that’s better than being swept along solely by tradition or by someone else’s expectations.

Recognizing that things like titles and word choice can be someone’s attempt to assert authority over you or to control your interaction/input in a given situation can be very valuable. It can help you understand why you end up feeling like you are ‘on the defensive’ with some people, or why you end up swept along in their plans instead of making your own. Once you understand that, then you have more power in the situation.

And, as far as I am concerned, understanding your own power – whether or not you choose to assert it – is a key part of feeling like you are in charge of your own life.**
*Of course, when you get used to calling someone by their title, it makes for very odd social occasions, especially when people who are not part of TKD join us. It’s kind of funny to be out with a group of people who are calling each other Ma’am and Sir but it’s hard to break the habit after so much time in class together.
Also, I recognize that the gender binary of these titles is problematic but, frankly, I haven’t figured out how to handle that yet.
**No, I am not suggesting that everyone has power over every interaction in their lives. And with factors like racism, sexism, ageism, and ableism at work you may not have access to the structures to support your choices in any given situation. However, I still think it is valuable to recognize how people use language for good and for bad, and acknowledge that the problem is not you.

L is for L-stance

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During April, I’m writing 26 posts for the A to Z Blog Challenge. I’m combining my skills as a writer, a life coach, and a martial artist (2nd degree black belt in ITF Taekwondo) to create a series of posts about applying aspects of TKD to life outside of martial arts. Whenever possible, I’ll include a little Taekwondoodle to illustrate what I’m talking about.

L-stance looks a lot like you imagine it would.

Say it was a left l-stance. Your feet, are facing two slightly different directions and they are 1.5 shoulder widths apart (measuring from the outside of your left foot to your right big toe.) Your left toes would be pointing almost toward 12 o’clock,your right toes would be facing almost toward 3 o’clock. Most of your weight is on your left leg and your left hip is pushed outward. (my taekwondoodle will follow later)

The details are slightly complex but the value of the stance is clear. L-stance not only keeps you a bit further from your opponent than other stances, it also lets you easily kick with one leg. You keep most of your weight on your back leg so your front leg is in position to deliver a kick.*

a person in a white martial arts uniform, their body is facing the viewer, their right arm is extended across their body in a punch, their left arm is at their side. Their right foot is pointing toward the viewer, their left is pointing to the left.

It turns out that an L-stance is really challenging for me to draw. 🙂

It’s an extremely useful stance because it sets you up to do what you need to do. It gets you right where you need to be to make the next move effective.

You can see where I am going here, right?

If you know what you need to do, it is very useful to set yourself up to do it easily.

Chefs often cut and measure their ingredients into little bowls before they cook.

Artists set up their supplies before they begin.

Mechanics bring a cart of tools near the car they are working on.

No matter what you are working on, it is helpful to be ready for the next step.

And it is useful to practice getting into that position.

I practice l-stance regularly so I can be ready when I have to use it. Even though it is the step BEFORE the action I want to take, there is value in ensuring that that step goes smoothly, that I can rely on it to work well when I need it.

How do you think you could apply that idea in your life?

What do you need to have ready before your work begins? What preparation to do you need to do to ensure that your work is effective? Are you respecting the effort that goes into that preparation?**

No matter what your work is, it will be easier if you take the time to ‘set yourself up’ in advance.

That includes things like giving yourself enough time before a meeting to get your notes in order – for me, it involves having enough time before a meeting to ‘get my brain there’ (switching tasks can be challenging for people with ADHD, I need to build in that switch time). It includes things like having a container for your post-it notes on your desk.

Whatever the physical or mental tools of your trade, if you can plan just one step back from the action you must take, it will serve you well.

So, if you can get yourself into a metaphorical L-stance before you get ready to kick at the next item on your to do list, you will be better positioned for success.

 

 

*These aren’t the only reasons or circumstances for L-stance but recounting every circumstance would get dull.

**I took a great course from Cairene MacDonald that made a huge difference in how I approach my work life. One of the key things I took from her course was the idea that ‘preparing to work is work’. Previous to that, I would get annoyed at having to sort papers or dig out documents or make phone calls before I could write/plan/whatever.  After her course, I began to respect that just like you warm up before you get into the strenuous part of your workout, you have to do your preparation before you can work. You can see that this post is that same lesson dressed in different clothes, so thanks to Cairene for helping me get here. 🙂