Discovering Courage & Community in the Written Word

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

–James Baldwin

While I certainly don’t think my pain and heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, a couple of recent books have awakened the realization that I’m not alone in certain experiences that, admittedly, I had previously believed were unique quirks. This has caused me to think about the many ways that we can find both courage and community through the written word.

The biggest a-ha moments occurred while I was reading Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, by Melissa Dahl. I was drawn to this book because I hoped it would help me to understand and release certain experiences of embarrassment and shame that have continued to haunt me. Initially, I was disappointed, and, I have to say, I struggled to stay focused reading it. I even skimmed some parts. Then, I encountered Chapter 8.

“Cringe attacks” That’s what she called them. As soon as I read the words, I had the thought, “So, it’s not just me? Other people do this, too?”

Cringe attacks are the name that Dahl gave the experience of suddenly, out of the blue, being blindsided by a memory of an embarrassing or shame-filled experience. It is something that I have never discussed with anyone, but it has nagged me for as long as I can remember. Certain memories have been perennial pests, popping up time and again, year after year. The time in 2001 when I made a poor choice about what to wear to work. The time when I was about 15 that I still can’t bring myself to state publicly. The cringe attacks come in vivid flashes, utterly unbidden, usually causing silent or out-loud exclamations and shaking of my head, in an effort to quickly usher the thoughts away.  

In recent months, my biggest tormentor has been an experience of mistaken identity at the beginning of fall 2019 semester. At a University social event, I saw someone from the back and thought it was someone else who I knew had fairly recently started working at the University. She’s someone I like and was happy to see. I think I called her name (well, the name of the person I thought she was) and touched her on the back. She turned, and I continued to talk to her, as I looked at her face. I knew this other person, too, but, for some reason that I still don’t understand (and, believe me, I have analyzed it ad nauseam to try to figure this out), it didn’t register until she said something, clearly trying to signal politely that she was not who I thought she was, about the location of her office. This woke me, and I made a hasty and ungraceful exit. Immediately, I wondered, “What is wrong with my brain? Is this early-onset dementia?” Was I spaced out from the stress of being in a social, mingling setting, which I hate? Whatever it was, I couldn’t believe that I didn’t immediately realize, when she turned, that I was talking to the wrong person. If I hadn’t known the woman in front of me, it would have been embarrassing and awkward, but not as mortifying as this was, since I knew her (and, worse, she knew me), too. For months it has popped randomly into my head. There does not have to be a trigger. Seemingly out of nowhere, the memory will barrel back into my consciousness, and I will feel a visceral clench of shame in my stomach, in my face. A cringe attack!

Reading about this phenomenon, I felt a sense of community with the unknown others (Does everyone do this? Even if it is just some of us, knowing that it is not just me helps.) who are tormented by cringe attacks. Until reading this, I thought I was the only person who suffered such attacks. More than anything else I have done to try to dampen the shame and embarrassment I felt around the mistaken identity, knowing that others have cringe attacks and witnessing their courage in sharing them, has helped me find both community and courage. I have had more healing and release since learning this and since starting to think about sharing my story in my blog than in the preceding months of trying to banish my negative feelings through Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT or tapping), meditation (not just for that reason, of course) or any other strategy, like hard intervals on my bike. Although finding out that I was not alone in the cringe attacks did not change the original experience, it seemed to normalize the whole thing for me—at least enough that I could write about it, further diluting some of the poison. It may seem silly, but the anguish has been real.

“Mind pops” are cringe attacks’ benign cousins. These aren’t particularly bothersome, but, again, I thought this regular occurrence was just part of my weirdness. A mind pop describes the sudden, apparently random, appearance in our conscious thoughts of less painful recollections. They aren’t upsetting, but they have often left me wondering, “Where did that come from?” A common form of mind pop for me occurs in the middle of something entirely unrelated. For instance, during my yoga practice on Thursday morning, I suddenly found myself mentally at the intersection of 151st W and 109th N, north of Bentley, Kansas, on my bike. Why? I don’t really mind, especially when it is a cycling mind pop. It’s just puzzling. There is nothing particularly unusual about the locations that show up as cycling mind pops. Why there? Why at this particular moment? I could understand if I had experienced something emotionally significant, but they usually just represent routine bike rides. Odd. But maybe normal?

My mind pops don’t only happen around cycling. That is just one of the more common forms for me. While reading about mind pops in Cringeworthy didn’t provide the same emotional release that learning that others have cringe attacks did, but I felt a little less alone, a little less weird. Others have mind pops. Interesting.

Listening on Audible, Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, by Ada Calhoun, gave me a different type of feeling of community. As a Gen X (roughly those born between 1961—or 1965, depending on the source—and 1981) woman, I have never really thought about myself as part of a generational community. You hear a lot more about Baby Boomers and Millennials, and I never really gave that much thought, which was part of Calhoun’s point. I have always thought that the angst I have felt over my path in life and over some of my choices were uniquely mine, unrelated to my position in history. And they are, in the specifics. But Calhoun pointed out that a lot of women my age experience this existential angst to a greater degree than some other generations, and that this suffering has often gone without recognition. While hearing many stories from other Gen X women who grew up with similar messaging, in a particular, shared historical context was a bit depressing, it also helped me recognize that my generation is one form of community for me, beyond just having grown up listening to the same music or, on a micro-level, gone to school together.

That’s the power of the written word—recognizing that we are not alone in experiences that we may have believed were exclusively ours and because of which we may have felt lonely.

Our own writing can be a place for us to find and express courage and, by sharing our stories bravely, to help others find courage. I have a dear friend who is writing a memoir. Sharing our stories in full honesty requires forging through pain and shame and guilt and many difficult feelings. I have been privileged to read some of her early chapters, and she is taking on all the pain courageously, baring her feelings and her memories because she believes (and I do, too) that her story can make a difference in the world.

That is also the power of the written word.

There are so many ways, these days, that we can read and benefit from learning others’ stories and realizing that we are not alone. We can heal and gain courage and feel a kinship with others who have gone through similar experiences. We learn that other people have gone through the trials and torments and embarrassments that we have. We feel a sense of community. That gives us strength.

We learn so much from books. Books (albeit mostly Kindle, for convenience) are still my favorite form of the written word. There are other ways, too, that we can find courage and community in reading and writing. Blogs and social media have opened up whole new avenues of expression and connection through the written word. I think this is a particular benefit to introverts, like me, but we can all grow through our interaction with these forms of writing.

I’m so thankful for my literacy, my vision, my drive to read, my call to write, the countless authors and writers I have read—and will read 😊–in my lifetime.

Courage and community. Compassion is my highest core value. Courage and community help us grow in compassion—for self, others, the animals, our planet.

What are some of the books that have made the biggest difference for you? How have you discovered courage and community through any form of the written word? How can you use the written word to make a difference?

I sincerely hope that my writing—whether in this blog, my in-progress book, my social media sharing, my soon(ish)-to-be-published essay or any other writing I do—will speak to others, at least occasionally inspiring courage and growing community.

Writing really is a superpower. Reading really is an amazing gift. I am grateful for both in my life.


The First 10 Days: Proceeding as if Success Were Inevitable

Think about the last time you embarked on a big project or started working toward a major goal. How did you feel? Excited? Nervous? Overwhelmed? Calm? Confident? Maybe it was a combination of some or all those emotions, or, maybe it was a different feeling. Chances are, though, if it meant something to you, there were strong feelings involved.

In my last blog post, I announced for the first time that I am writing a book. At the time I wrote that post, I had several pages of notes and a working title, but I hadn’t officially started writing it. That changed over the last 10 days, when I developed a comprehensive outline on September 1 and then launched into content on Labor Day.

My Labor Day bike ride was full of reflection because launching into the writing feels momentous. I know there is a great deal of work ahead of me, and I have a lot to learn about publishing and even about the differences between writing a blog or an essay and writing a book. Yet, I realize that I feel calm and confident, as well as excited and encouraged. There are several reasons why.

I have a couple of mantras running through my head. One is Marie Forleo’s “Everything is figureoutable.” (I am really looking forward to reading her just-released book by that name.) I trust that I will be able to figure out the things I need learn about the publishing process. Somehow, I believe it will work out. I will learn what I need to learn. It helps me to remember that there are many, many books in existence and that all authors were once first-time authors. If they can do it, I can do it.

Another mantra that really helps me believe that I can do this is Ann Lamott’s reminder that “A page a day is a book a year.” My life is VERY full. As I said in my last post, I am choosing to keep that fullness during this season of life. I may choose differently at some point, but, right now, there is no “spare” time (whatever that is). So, I could let myself become overwhelmed and think, “How can I even think about writing a book when I am so busy?’ Instead, I am calmed and reassured by heeding Lamott’s advice and setting a rough goal of writing a page a day. That seems doable. Even so, I am making some modifications to that goal. For instance, there are some days when it may be truly impossible to write at all. So, I will average seven pages a week, making up for lost days on Saturday and/or Sunday. I will also use some days for editing sections. All in all, I have set a loose goal of completing the writing in a year.

Much of the time, it is wise to set a “firm” deadline or target date for completing a project or achieving a goal. This feels different, though, because it is important to me to keep this a joyful project. That doesn’t mean it will be stress free or blissful every moment, but I don’t think I have much to gain by adding time pressure. I realize that there could be reasons to tighten up my deadline, as I learn more about publishing. For right now, this feels good.

There is value for me in writing publicly about this goal. When you launch a new endeavor, do you share your goal with others, or do you keep it to yourself? I do both, depending on the goal. Some people need to talk about their goal because they need external accountability. That is not the case for me. As an Upholder, according to Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies, I respond favorably to both internal and external expectations, meaning that I keep promises I make to myself, as well as those I make to others. I don’t need to feel obligated to another person or group to make sure I do what I say I am going to do. If you haven’t taken Rubin’s quiz, I encourage you to use the link above and take it to help you determine if you would benefit from having some external accountability when you take on a big goal.

In his popular TED Talk, Derek Sivers explains that there is some evidence that talking about our goals makes it less likely that they will be achieved because we experience a surge of satisfaction just by talking about them. There is gratification because we receive social acknowledgement when people respond positively to our pursuit of a goal. He recommends either not talking about our goals or talking about them in ways that minimize gratification. Instead of saying, “I am going to lose 10 pounds,” you could tell a friend or a coach, “I really want to lose 10 pounds, and I need you to scold me if you see me eating something I shouldn’t.” From the first time I heard or read this perspective on sharing goals, I was hesitant to buy in to it. It just didn’t resonate with me. Maybe that is because I am an Upholder. This may be a worthwhile consideration for those who have a different tendency. What has been your experience? Do you benefit from the accountability of sharing a goal, or have you experienced the phenomenon Sivers describes?

My husband Kenny has talked about how he felt when he was training to ride his bike across the United States in 1995, four years before we met. He told all the important people in his life. He said doing so created pressure, and it got to the point when he was just ready to get started and stop talking about it. He doesn’t indicate that he would do anything differently, just that it felt like pressure because so many people knew what he was working toward. Maybe that was a form of accountability for him.

For me the value of sharing my goal is that it makes it feel real. I am putting it out there for the Universe to support me and to position myself to start living as someone who is writing a book. I could do that in secret, too, but putting it out there feels a bit courageous. Of course, there is no guarantee that I will be successful according to any particular definition of success, whether that is completing the manuscript, getting published or earning money from my book. Yet, I feel that I am honoring myself and my vision by stating my ambition and letting the world know about this aspect of my life.

In general, I like beginnings. They feel hopeful and loaded with possibility. That is how launching into my book writing feels. It reminds me of how I feel at the beginning of a long bike ride, early on a weekend morning, when there is a flurry of excitement in my belly as I imagine the adventure the ride could become. Do you experience a similar rush of excitement when you begin working toward a goal? How we channel that feeling makes a difference. It could be recognized as either excitement or fear because the neurological response is very similar.

What strategies do you use to position yourself for success in your big goals and dreams?

How do you stay calm and avoid overwhelm?

I recommend a calming mantra, like “Everything is figureoutable.” I also recommend breaking down a big project into bite-sized bits. If you need help doing that, a coach or trusted friend could serve as a guide to creating a manageable plan. Depending on your goal, scheduling time to work on your project may be a critical component.

Exercise is a longtime lifestyle for me. I always schedule it into my week and know when I will exercise and what I will do (ride my bike, practice yoga, strength train, etc.) each day. It is too important to leave to chance.  I am not formally scheduling my writing at this time. I am going to see how my “page-a-day” strategy works. I might reassess scheduling, if I find that I am not making the progress I desire.

It is also worth considering whether talking about your goal will help or hinder your chances of success. Do you need the accountability of a coach or workout buddy or friend? Do you need to publicly commit, so that you will feel embarrassed if you don’t follow through? Do you think you would be less likely to succeed if you experienced gratification by sharing what you are doing? Or, like me, is sharing your goal a way of honoring the validity of what you are doing and of welcoming the support of the Universe?

The next time you begin something big, take some time to consider what conditions best position you to achieve what you set out to achieve. In my health coach training, we were encouraged to “proceed as if success were inevitable.” Part of that is to start with the right conditions in place. Let me know how I can support you in living with no regrets by helping you establish the right circumstances and strategies for accomplishing what you what to accomplish. (sheri@justwindcoach.com)


My 3 R’s

According to Wikipedia, the concept of the “3 R’s” as the foundation of a solid education probably originated in a 1795 speech by Sir William Curtis. The 3 R’s generally refer to “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic,” although arithmetic may have been “reckoning” in the past, as that was the term commonly used for math during the era when the catchphrase was popularized. The mnemonic has been borrowed by a number of other sectors outside of education, such as the environmental movement’s familiar 3 R’s of solid waste: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

While on a bike ride a while back, it occurred to me that I have my own personal 3 R’s: Reading, ‘riting and Riding (or I could call them my 3 B’s: Bikes, Books and Blogging—with “Blogging” standing in for writing, in general). I think all of us need to determine those things that are foundational for us, those things that are central to our identities and to how we navigate the world. There may be more or fewer than three, and they may not lend themselves to such neat alliteration, but we all have activities without which we would be very different people. I think these are passions, but also habits—those things we regularly do that shape our days and our thoughts.

It takes time to determine what these key activities are, and they may change over time as we grow with life experience. Recognizing the importance of our 3R equivalents is valuable because doing so allows us the opportunity to emphasize them in our lives, enabling them to anchor us and advance our evolution.

I have loved to read since I was very young, and I have always read a lot. After years of reading primarily textbooks, journal articles and other assigned works, I can still remember the amazing feeling, after completing my first Master’s degree, when I realized suddenly, “I can read whatever I want!” Once I adjusted to that freedom, I happily undertook a fervent and intentional lifelong learning journey, fueled primarily through reading nonfiction books across a wide range of genres.

When my brother gave me a Kindle for Christmas several years ago, I wasn’t sure if it would appeal to me because I was an avid user of the public library. Now, Kindle has become my primary reading medium. The downside is that I spend more money on books because I have generally found library Kindle offerings to differ from my preferences. The convenience offered by Kindle has made the cost worthwhile for me. Instead of struggling to find time in my full schedule to get to the library, now, when I learn about a book I want to read, I can have it on my electronic book shelf within a minute. When I travel, I can easily take multiple books with me. I always have my Kindle in my bag when I leave the house. Reading calms me and prevents my mind from going places I don’t want it to go. It allows me to learn about virtually any subject. It helps me grow personally and develop professionally. Reading generates ideas within me that I can then process through my other two R’s.

I have loved to write since my time in Catholic schools. Sr. Boniface introduced me to diagramming sentences in the fourth grade, spawning an enduring passion for grammar and language and a recognition of the power in understanding how to structure sentences and arrange them in compelling ways. I started college as an English major because I loved English in high school and felt relatively competent in my use of language. Although my major changed, my love for writing didn’t. I have always been grateful for my strong early foundation in writing skills.

My relationship with writing has fluctuated throughout adulthood. Sometimes, I have written only for myself, in my journal. Writing was one of the aspects of my undergraduate and graduate programs that I most enjoyed. I have often felt that I am able to articulate my ideas more capably in writing than in conversation. The urge to do something more with writing has nagged me sporadically, sometimes strongly. For years, despite bursts of ambition, I tucked away my desire to expose my writing to scrutiny from a broader audience than the academic, professional and voluntary settings in which I had written. Finally, late last summer, the pull became strong enough that I was moved to start this blog. It felt like a risk to put my writing out there and make it public, but it also felt like something I needed to do. Taking steps to expand my writing gives me hope beyond feelings of constraint and pushes me to pursue a larger vision.

And then there is riding, my third (but certainly not tertiary) R. Before there was cycling, there was running and other exercise for me, but cycling has been my true athletic passion for many years now. I am still awed by the distance that can be covered on a bike. My bike is the place where what I read is often masticated, pedal stroke by pedal stroke, and digested into what I write. My time on the bike clarifies my ideas about the things I am reading, the stressors I am facing or the puzzles I am pondering. Several of my blog posts have been written largely in my head, while on my bike. The same is true for previous presentations and strategic plans.

Of course, I love the physical challenge and benefits of cycling, but the mental and emotional boosts are what make it so foundational for me. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced the concept of flow. “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. . . .  The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” I have certainly found this to be true. My thinking is so much clearer, and I feel energized for hours after a ride where I have pushed hard.

Other people, things, projects and work are important to me, but these 3 R’s center and focus me, help me regain equilibrium when I am thrown off balance by life and help me remember who I am.

As I have worked on this blog over the last four months, I have realized that, while cycling was and remains, the primary inspiration for this blog, there are other aspects of my life that intersect with my time on the bike to round out the bigger picture of the story I want to convey. So, for 2016, I have updated my blog purpose to: celebrate my passion for cycling and books, while sharing the lessons I learn and the insight I glean through the intersection of cycling, reading and writing in my life. My 3 R’s.

What are those things that are foundational for you? Central to who you are and how you process life? While yours are likely different than mine, I believe we all have them, and they are vital keys to a rich life. Paying attention to the things that make us feel most alive and allow us to find Csikszentmihalyi’s flow enables us to reap rich rewards and further our personal evolution.