How to Be Courageous (Even When You’re Afraid): Part I

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courageI’ve been thinking a lot about courage lately—how it is the quintessential quality of heroes, how it is something we all want more of, and how it is something most of us believe we lack. But before I get into how we can become more courageous, here are a few of the reasons why this topic has been on my mind in the first place:

1) Yesterday was MLK Day.

In addition to living a life of courage, Dr. King sure knew how to describe it in a way that gives goose-bumps:

“Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles; Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances. Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it. Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency ask the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

2) Yesterday I saw American Sniper.

I certainly believe that our soldiers exhibit tremendous courage on a regular basis, but one of the things that struck me about this film was the way it showcases the courage of military families in general. This excellent article describes the intense emotions those back home experience on a regular basis, and the courage it takes just to go on living a “normal” life under extraordinary stresses.

“The movie didn’t show what came next. I wished it would have. The throwing up, reflexively, again and again, out of pure fear. The dry heaves, streams of snot, and the feeling of your own body temperature dropping as you curl into a fetal position and stay like that for hours.

The movie didn’t show how you must use every ounce of energy just to exist through the two days of wondering if you’re a widow yet, and then relaxing a bit on the third day because the casualty notification team has not come. If he were dead, they would have been here by now.”

If getting up and carrying on after regular scares like the one described above doesn’t take courage, I don’t know what does.

3) Rejection Results in Fear

And a few days ago I experienced rejection. I won’t go into the details, but I now have two options: 1) Give in to the fear of failure and give up, or 2) Use the door that unexpectedly closed in my face as an opportunity to burst through another. I’m sure many fellow writers out there are familiar with rejection and the fear of failure (if not, you’re doing something wrong), and it helps to know that we’re not the only ones (which is why I watch J.K. Rowling’s speech The Fringe Benefits of Failure at least once a year).

4) Courage Breeds Creativity (to return to Dr. King)

Like I said, it doesn’t take much for the writing life suck you down into a cesspit of fear. Fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of writing the “wrong” kind of story (i.e. one that isn’t marketable at this exact moment), fear of what others will think. It’s paralyzing, and it certainly doesn’t make you a more creative person. In fact, it often seems that those who create without a care about any of the things mentioned above, but rather because they have something to say that’s worth hearing, end up being the ones who produce art that is actually transformative.

5) I’ve Been Reading Works by Ancient Greeks

And the ancient Greeks thought courage was kind of a big deal.

Take the Iliad, where Hector is frequently described as the most courageous of Trojans, even though he isn’t as great of a warrior as Achilles and knows he’s fated to die at this enemy’s hand. One of the main ways Hector actually shows his courage is through his willingness to accept those things that are beyond his control, along with his willingness to face his fate no matter the outcome.

“Why so much grief for me? No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate. And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it, neither brave man nor coward, I tell you – it’s born with us the day that we are born.” ~The Iliad

Aristotle was another ancient Greek who had a lot to say about courage. He describes courage as a virtue that can only be gained by…acting courageously. In other words, we rarely (if ever) feel brave, so if we wait for this elusive sensation we will never become courageous. We only gain courage by taking actions—even the smallest “baby steps”—that demand courage. Take public speaking, for example. Even though America is a fairly extroverted nation, public speaking tends to rank as one of our top fears (surpassing even death!). Yet the only way to get over the fear of public speaking is to…engage in public speaking! If you wait for the fear to disappear before giving it a go, you’ll never do it and you’ll definitely never become good at it. Similarly, the only way to become courageous is to put oneself in uncomfortable, challenging situations where courage is required.

Stay tuned for Part II…

2015: From Survival to Renewal

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I’ll be honest, 2014—at least the second half of it—has been a blur. I finished a graduate program in Scotland and a new novel, and then headed back to the U.S. to start a new job teaching literature at a superb K-12 charter school. Thanks to my Army brat upbringing moving is pretty much second nature by now, but there’s always a period of readjustment that’s filled with stress, anxiety, and uncertainty.  “Wisdom comes through suffering” (Aeschylus) is a quotation I often hear at my school, and while it isn’t always helpful in the midst of suffering, upon reflection I do believe that it’s true. My goal for 2015 is to turn a few lessons in survival into opportunities for renewal, so here are the top three things I’ve learned from the challenges of 2014:

  1. Teaching is hard work. Really hard work.

Anyone who has worked in education has probably heard people say things like, “The first year of teaching is the hardest” and “You just have to survive…it gets easier with time.” Because I’ve taught at the college level as a part-time adjunct instructor, I didn’t really feel “new” to teaching, but full-time teaching at the secondary level is truly a whole different level of intense. I now have a new and profound respect for public school teachers, as it is impossible to regard teaching as merely “a job”— it  is a lifestyle, an identity, a vocation that is deeply personal and touches every part of you. This graph from the New Teacher Center has provided perspective during moments when I’m overwhelmed by the emotional rollercoaster that is the first year—apparently it’s completely normal!

2. You have to make the time.

Every year I think life will slow down and get less busy, but it never does. There’s nothing earthshattering about this insight, but making time for the important things really is a choice, though it isn’t an easy one. Whether it’s exercising regularly, reading, praying, cooking healthy meals that take more time to prepare, writing, spending undistracted time with loved ones—these are all things that easily fall to the bottom of the “to do” list when life gets crazy, therefore they are priorities we must choose. Every day.

  1. Challenging books are worth the effort and “the view.”

This semester I had the privilege of reading and teaching some amazing books: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Homer’s Iliad, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. There books aren’t the easiest to read (or teach!), but the beautiful language and permanent insights they provide when it comes to the human condition make them well worth the effort. I had one of my classes write an essay on the lecture The Essential Value of a Classic Education, and in it Dr. Jeffrey Brenzel uses a great analogy to explain why we should struggle to read the classics at all. He compares this journey to a difficult hike his son experienced as a Boy Scout: “You climb up into the mountains, you make your most strenuous effort, you give it everything you have, and what’s your reward? It’s the view. It’s the view.”

I was able to experience Brenzel’s insight after my ninth graders spent the entire fall semester reading the entire Iliad. Now I love Homer, but this amazing epic poem is over 700 pages long and a lot of those pages involve detailed descriptions of brutal battle scenes. I’m sure getting through parts of the book was a challenge for most students, but I think “the view”–the deep understanding gained from this slow and steady journey–was well worth it. By the end, they knew Achilles and Agamemnon, Hector and Andromache, Helen and Paris, and could articulate the virtues and vices of these complex characters. Personally, one of my tangible rewards as a teacher was this doodle by a student, left on the white board after we discussed one of the most moving passages in the poem—the scene in Book VI where Hector, defender of Troy, speaks to his wife and baby son before returning to the battlefield to face Achilles and certain death.

 Heart Hector

 (And by “good” the student meant morally good/virtuous)

Long before there was “Team Peta” vs. “Team Gale,” there was “Team Hector” vs. “Team Achilles” (for the record, I’m for “Team Hector” all the way!). This was definitely one of those moments as a new teacher where “the view” was worth the effort. :)

Happy New Year!

IMAGINATION Part I: The Moral Imagination

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Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive–it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?” ~ Anne Shirley (L.M. Montgomery)

Every summer that I spend in northern Michigan I watch the 1985 film adaptation of Anne of Green anneGables (northern Michigan—especially the Victorian summer colony of Mackinac Island—always makes me think of Prince Edward Island). My fascination with the power that words have on our imaginations probably started when I first read the ‘Anne books’ as a very young girl (and then re-read them multiple times). One of the most endearing characters in all of children’s literature, Anne Shirley made the mundane magical and infused ordinary life with wonder. During her early life in orphanages, Anne’s active imagination seemed to be a coping mechanism (i.e. Katie Morris, her window friend), but once she reached Prince Edward Island it became her characteristic response of gratitude for her new life (“It’s delightful when your imaginations come true, isn’t it?”), as well as the source of her passionate spirit, love of poetry and history, longing for transcendent mystery, and moral courage. Anne of Green Gables, without a doubt, was the fictional character who sparked my young moral imagination more than anyone else.

The term “moral imagination” was coined by the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France and described those intangible ideals “furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination” that form a foundation for all flourishing societies (myth, religion, poetry, art…in a word, culture)–sentiments Burke believed were being rejected by certain thinkers who wished to narrow valid experiences to those that could be explained by a limited definition of reason and a reductionist vision where human beings are little more than advanced animals. Russell Kirk reinvigorated the term in the 20th century, referring to the moral imagination as an empathetic “power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events.”

Many parents want to encourage the imaginations of their children, but I also meet parents who are wary or discouraged by the kinds of stories currently being marketed to young people (“they’re so dark,” “there’s no clear sense of right and wrong,” “the content is too edgy and explicit”). Perhaps this fear explains why imagination has not always been thought of as a positive faculty. In the Middle Ages the word was often used to describe dark fantasies of the mind that tempted one to do bad things, and in modern times imagination is sometimes associated with romantic daydreamers who can’t cope with the world as it is, so they create their own. This certainly wasn’t what Burke and Kirk meant by moral imagination, but defining the somewhat ambiguous term—especially as it relates to fictional stories—can be a challenge, so I’ve come up with a list of 10 Principles in an effort to narrow it down.

An important point to mention is that when it comes to books for children and young adults, stories with squeaky-clean characters and overly preachy messages (in addition to being dull) aren’t usually the best representatives of the moral imagination. Stories of the moral imagination promote wonder, empathy and hope. They allow us to enter into another’s plight and experience ethical dilemmas, but they also inspire by giving the reader confidence that Goodness ultimately wins out and is not for the weak.

What stories have you read that embodied these principles? Please comment below!

10 Principles of the Moral Imagination

by Ashlee L. Cowles

1) Stories of the Moral Imagination point to an enduring and transcendent moral order, and therefore resist ethical relativism, utilitarianism, and nihilism. They suggest that many aspects of the human experience are universal and can be shared across cultures.

2) Stories of the Moral Imagination emphasize “what a thing is”—especially, human nature. They recognize that there is something “above human nature” (the supernatural) and something “below it” (the diabolical) (Russell Kirk). The writer does not create this reality, but rather discovers it.

3) Stories of the Moral Imagination reveal that humans have a mythopoeic means of knowing reality that transcends rationalism and empiricism. Human beings are “sub-creators” (J.R.R. Tolkien) who naturally seek out the Good, True, and Beautiful through story and myth—our primary modes of understanding the deepest truths.

4) Stories of the Moral Imagination defend the notion of free will, while also acknowledging the possibility of destiny, grace, and providence. Because humans are free agents who will not always choose to act virtuously, they as individuals, as well as the societies they form, are always an imperfect—but redeemable—blend of good and evil.

5) Stories of the Moral Imagination reveal that the purpose of human life is not pleasure, power, or utopia, but arête (virtue or excellence) and, above all else, Love.

6) Stories of the Moral Imagination resist the extremes of libertarianism and collectivism by emphasizing individual personhood in inescapable community. This is reflected in the story’s heroes and in the lives of the writers themselves, whose craft is often the result of both solitude and community.

7) Stories of the Moral Imagination emphasize that there are “permanent things” (T.S. Eliot) which must be passed on in order for a culture to endure and flourish. The characters in such stories fight not necessarily for total victory, but “to keep something alive” (Russell Kirk). Memory is therefore crucial, as are the traditions of past generations.

8) Stories of the Moral Imagination resist rigid dualisms by stressing paradox, as well as the sacramental nature of existence. Humans are a mystery in that we possess some kind of consciousness/soul that cannot be explained entirely by scientific means, yet we are also embodied beings, which means the pleasures and sufferings of the material world are central to the human experience.

9) Stories of the Moral Imagination have an ethical end, but they need not be didactic and are not always allegorical. Their primary purpose is not to instruct, but to awaken (George MacDonald). Just as the Moral Imagination is not a thing or even a faculty, but “a process of making metaphors out of images and experience” (Vigen Guroian), stories of the Moral Imagination use powerful symbols, believable characters, and authentic situations to achieve their purposes, rejecting simplistic moral lessons.

10) Stories of the Moral Imagination recognize that truthful fiction often requires “getting yourself dusty” (Flannery O’Connor). Such stories do not shy away from depicting the nature of evil and the broken state of our world, but they also recognize that without the possibility of transformation and a vision of hope “the people perish.”

A Year in Scotland

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It’s hard to believe that our time in Scotland has come to an end. This past year has been a whirlwind, but fortunately we still found time to explore this enchanting land of lush forests, emerald isles, misty mountains, sea-glass studded beaches, and heather kissed moors. As a lover of history, literature, and folklore, I can see why Alba is a place that appeals to people with more romantic sensibilities–those who prefer timeless truths to temporary ‘facts’ and long-lasting, fantastical legends to prosaic annals of the past. From the gritty atmosphere of Edinburgh’s Old Town with its narrow closes and winding cobblestone streets, to the white sands of sunny (relatively speaking) St Andrews or the haunting Highland valley of Glen Coe, Scotland is a land that—in the words of my favorite literary heroine, Anne Shirley—provides much “scope for the imagination.” Here are a few of the highlights from our year in Scotland:

The Western Isles & Highlands

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Edinburgh – Scotland’s City of Literature…and lots of fun pubs! (the two go hand-in-hand, right?)

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Radiant Ruins & Creepy Cemeteries

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Fairy Forests & Secret Gardens

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Castles and Cairns

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Sands, Seashells, and Sunsets

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Craft Beer at STABCO (St. Andrews Brewing Company)

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Hamish McHamish the St. Andrews Cat…and other Creatures Great & Small

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Mini Pilgrimages & Long Walks

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Old Books

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Visitors!

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Writing & Wanderlust

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It’s almost finished, so I suppose I can make an official announcement on the old blog. In the next few weeks I’ll be completing the revisions of my Young Adult novel THE LONG WAY HOME and my wonderful new agent, Erin Harris of Folio Literary Management, will soon be pitching it to publishers. I’ve written several novels in recent years (all unpublished…so far ;)), but this story is particularly special to me because it deals with topics rooted in my Army brat upbringing that will hopefully speak to people living this lifestyle today…and anyone else suffering from wanderlust! Here’s the story:

Spain 305 (2)Gabriela Santiago remembers the moment her childhood changed forever: September 11, 2001. Since that day over a decade ago she’s lived on more Army bases than she cares to count, her soldier father has deployed five times, and now her nineteen-year-old brother, Lucas, is going to war too. Some people would love to spend their senior year living in Europe on the U.S. government’s dime, but not Gabi. With her boyfriend back in the States and her brother in Afghanistan, Gabi wants nothing less than to be stuck on a U.S. base in Germany. What she wants is to go home—too bad Uncle Sam is the one who gets to dictate every aspect of her life.

Gabi’s already unstable world is turned upside down when she learns that her brother has been severely wounded in action. What’s more, right before he was injured Lucas sent her a cryptic message in the form of a Homeric epic and a strange request: if anything should happen to him, Lucas wants Gabi to fulfill his dream of conquering the Camino de Santiago—the ancient route of their family namesake, which crosses northern Spain and is still walked by thousands of seekers and skeptics alike.

To honor her brother’s wish while he fights for his life, Gabi must make the journey with Cain Cohen, Lucas’s best friend, a young soldier who harbors dark secrets about what happened in Afghanistan and wrestles with these demons of war the entire way. What transpires on the road is a transformative journey filled with quirky characters and an unlikely romance between two people united by their loyalty to Lucas…and to Gabi’s surprise, a great deal more. Cain may be the last person Gabi would have chosen to walk to the ends of the earth with, but he may become the one person she can’t walk without.

Stay tuned! :)

Reading Resolutions 2014: A Year of Scottish Authors

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I’ve never been one for making serious New Year’s resolutions, but I often make a list of fiction reading goals and since I’m in Scotland, this year I’m focusing on Scottish authors (and it turns out there are many great ones!). Here we go:

1) Sir Walter Scott

KenilworthOften considered the first historical novelist, there’s no way I could pass up Sir Walter Scott! Right now I’m reading Kenilworth (about Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley) and I hope to get to Ivanhoe and The Tailsman as well.

 

 

 

 

2. Dorothy Dunnett

Another historical novelist,  Dorothy Dunnett’s retelling of the story of Macbeth, King Hereafter, is the novel I’m most looking forward to reading.

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3. Robert Louis Stevenson

jekyllAfter visiting a pub in Edinburgh inspired by this classic Gothic tale of good vs. evil, I decided it was time to read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. George MacDonald

This Victorian writer was an influence on some of my favorite authors and wrote many, many stories, but I think I’ll start with his children’s classic, The Princess and the Goblinprincess and goblin

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. J.K. Rowling

goblet of fireI know, I know, technically J.K. Rowling was born in England (though her grandfather was Scottish–born on the Isle of Arran–so she’s 1/4 Scottish), but Harry Potter’s birthplace is Edinburgh, where Rowling wrote the early books. She has also stated in interviews that she always envisioned Hogwarts being located in Scotland (which is where you end up when you get on a train at King’s Cross station and head north!). I’ve been working my way through the series and am getting ready to begin The Goblet of Fire.

 

 

6. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

After watching two seasons of the hit BBC series, I’m eager to read a few Sherlock stories by another Edinburgh-born author. Sherlock

You Might Be a Pilgrim If:

Originally posted on The Greenery:

56 Ways to Identify an American Post-Camino Peregrino in Withdrawal

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*note to visitors: This post is about the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain and assumes a certain amount of knowledge in readers. If you’re curious, this article gives a brief overview: “Walking the Camino de Santiago: A Beginner’s Guide

1. Goodwill will not accept your used hiking boots.

2. You carry toilet paper, extra-powered Ibuprofen, and Compeed with you at all times.

3. You wash your socks with shampoo.

4. You have a fantastic tan…but only on your left side.

5. You have seen Pablito‘s special rock.

6. You fear cyclists.

7. You routinely approach reception desks and ask if the hotel is “complete.”

8. You hear that Alanis Morissette song in your head when you take long walks.

9. You can say “hello” in Spanish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese, English, Dutch, Korean, and Aussie.

10. You…

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