By Tanya Ward Goodman
It’s Friday night and I’m in a dance studio in Atwater with a bunch of pre-teen girls. My friend, Wesley and I have been leading this group for just over a year and although we bill it as an “empowerment and learning group,” it’s more like a think tank with brains of all ages. We get together, eat a snack and ponder the big and small questions.
“Okay,” I say. “Your goal is to get to the other side of the room. Go.”
The girls stand and quickly across the floor. Once they get there, a few of them look at me like I’m crazy. There are eye rolls. A few furrowed brows.
“What did you do to accomplish your goal?”
More eye rolls. A hair flip.
One girl raises her hand. When she speaks, her voice is the one reserved for the very young or the very old. “We got up and walked over here.”
“But what did you do first?” I ask.
There is some shifting from foot to foot, some elbows nudging ribs. There is hesitation.
My co-facilitator, Wesley, asks them to come back to their seats. She asks them to think about the very first thing they did. How did they get from sitting to standing? How did they go from standing to walking?
I’ve realized that these are the questions I should be asking myself every time I make a to-do list, every time I say I want to write a novel or an essay, every time I start to cook a meal. Is it possible that it’s taken over forty years for me to finally figure you that if the goal is a brisket dinner, first you’ve got to buy the beef and peel the carrots?
My goals are often the same from year to year and as such, they’ve become little more than an unexamined weight. Finish my novel. Send out more essays. Be more organized. Travel with my family. Be a better parent. Get fit. In January, the noise around the setting and meeting of these goals is loud as ocean waves, by March, the roar has usually diminished, deadened by old patterns and guilt.
This year, I’ve been trying to think more about the work and less about the result. For example, it is very easy to say “I’m going to finish my novel.” I say it a lot. I said it all last year. (But my novel did not magically get finished.) This year, I’m trying to say things like, “I’m going to make another outline.” I’m saying things like, “I’m going to write five ideas for new scenes on notecards and post them on my bulletin board.” “I’m going to write a little every day.” None of this is brain-surgery-style complicated, but for me, it’s a shift.
My son thinks he’s a terrible writer. He tells me over and over how much he hates to write. When he has an essay due, he turns on his computer and stares at the blank screen for a while. Then he gets mad and stomps off to his room. Then I coax him back. Then he stares at his blank screen. I ask if he wants help. He denies a need for help. There is usually more stomping.
A few weeks ago, I said to him, “You’re not a terrible writer, you’re a terrible planner.” Harsh, I know, but I’d been saying the same thing to myself earlier in the day and I was still standing.
“Do you know what you want to write?” I asked.
“Kind of,” he said.
“Do you have evidence to back up your ideas?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said.
“What are your ideas?”
“I’m not sure.”
He’d gotten himself so wrapped up in the goal of WRITING A PAPER, he’d completely skipped the part where he figured out the topic for his paper. I pulled my chair next to his and we read the assignment a couple of times. I asked him to read it out loud. We talked about what he’d read and what he thought he’d like to write about. We looked at his source material. We talked some more. He came up with an idea. We talked some more. He was bored (and at times, I was, too,) but we kept at it. By the time he wrote his topic sentence, he’d been sitting with his project for an hour. The essay was not written, but he had a much clearer sense of what he was going to write.
“This is so tiring,” he said.
“I know, right?” I replied.
The work wasn’t over. I coached him through the outline, through text citations and through the writing of a conclusion that did not include the phrase, “And then I woke up.” And he wrote a paper.
And, then, you know what? We went through the whole process again a week later. (Staring at blank screen, stomping, sitting, reading, thinking, talking, writing.) But that’s okay, because, this year, the only goal is the work and we are meeting the goal in new ways every day.
The next time we met with the girls, we asked them to show us something they couldn’t do. Again the furrowed brows, the eye rolls, the hair flips.
“How are we supposed to do something we can’t do?” one of the girls asked.
“Just show us.”
She showed us how she couldn’t do a push-up. She flattened herself against the floor, motionless.
“So, if you wanted to do a push-up,” I asked, “What do you think you’d do first?”
She smiled, bent her arms at the elbow and put her palms flat on the floor. It was a good first step.