spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily

Ready? Set Goal


I shared with my Tuesday Morning Women’s Group that while in Seattle I went to a goal-setting meeting. The women at the meeting were friends of my host, Susan, had met twice a month to explore their goals and ask each other to help them be accountable. I came back to the Bay Area curious if we who had been meeting two plus years might also like to set goals together.

I was surprised that the word “goals” churned up anxiety and resistance. Mentioned were childhood summers that started with a “to-do list” from Mom and Dad with expectations that all chores should be completed before the start of school. Also the idea of goals brought up the specter of failure.

I was energized by our goal-setting discussion, despite the resistance that surfaced. By the following Tuesday the group’s aversion had softened. One woman was already an ardent proponent of goals, and she had been absent from the meeting when the topic first came up. Indeed, in the past year she had been an inspiration to us as she undertook home improvement while maintaining a good relationship with her husband who was not a jumping-into-projects kind of man. They replaced their windows, updated the entryway with a sturdy and attractive wrought-iron gate, painted the living room without dispute about color and applied decorative tiles to the fireplace.

So when the topic of goals came up again, we were ready to agree that any of us could set a goal that we thought could be accomplished and it needn’t be about lists of chores like the ones from Mom and Dad. And we wouldn’t write down each other’s goals.

Regardless of what our group wanted to do, talking goals  as well as attending a session in Seattle inspired me to be more conscious about goal setting. I would start by finishing my blog “Good Writing Is…” as I had missed my Monday deadline due to fuzzy thinking. When a friend proposed to sort through tee shirts and discard those least worn, I thought I might do that too once I got the blog online. I sensed my goal-setting attitude was more serious than in the past when I chose to pursue activities so as to avoid sloth or to keep from sinking too deeply into the more somnambulant pleasure of movies and TV.

And as sometimes happens when a topic starts to interest me, I wanted to know what others had thought and said. I found the website “Mind Tools” where I learned that people have known for a long time about a goal-setting theory based on Dr. Edwin Locke’s research on motivation and getting things done.

In a 1968 article “Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives,” Locke talked about how working toward a stated goal really helped motivate people to reach their goals – which, in turn, improved their performance. Although most of the theory was centered on job performance, I could see how even in retirement goal setting might be inspiring. The goals he proposed were SMART goals: that is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound.

Setting SMART goals could still matter even though I am not in a work environment and don’t have a boss to please. I realize that my achieving self still sees “success” as a goal although I am not sure what “success” looks like. But I am curious if setting goals might direct me toward finding the form “success” might take.

For example, in the last several years I have written weekly blogs and have imagined compiling them in a different form. I know my sons read them and perhaps they might like a more tangible memory of what Mom was up to in the later years of her life.

 When Kate, who is realistically inclined, reminded me that I would have to check back through all the photos I downloaded for my blogs to see if they were licensed for commercial use, I felt l would prefer not to. Looks more like a chore than a goal. I envisioned a new possibility. I could find an illustrator. I like the idea of imagining with an artist my writing from a visual perspective. Looking for an illustrator sounds like I saw “success” as a published book – paper or electronic – made of pieces I posted on spiritflowsthru.com.

Moreover meeting the daily goals publishing would require would be another way to measure success apart from whether the book is actually published. And making my goals SMART practically guarantees I will experience accomplishment. Yes, I’m ready to set some serious goals.

In the meantime, another friend in our Tuesday morning group mailed away a parcel of books she had set aside months ago for a friend’s July birthday.

Good Writing Is...


PictureThe New Yorker on the counter/Alison R.
Kate bundled three years of New Yorker magazines into a Trader Joe shopping bag and said, “Here, they’re yours. Please return the bag.” I was excited to tote home these magazines because having once had a subscription to The New Yorker, I knew their nonfiction writers give access to people, places, and ideas I would not have imagined I’d want to know about.

I read Tad Friend’s, “Contract City,” a piece about Costa Mesa published in the Sept. 5, 2011 magazine, not because I necessarily cared about the topic or expected a plot, but because the writing voice caught me. As an aspiring writer, I asked myself what is Friend doing so well that I am hanging in for all seven pages of tiny type to read about the political hassles of an Orange County suburb I never cared about even when I lived in Southern California?

I stayed around to meet the city councilmen, to tour the look-alike beige buildings and to consider the death of a young Vietnamese employee who may have fallen off the roof of city hall or have committed suicide even before reading his lay-off notice. For me, Friend’s tale of union busting and reckless Republican decision-making made good reading because it was full of specifics, for one thing, and because it followed the advice given by the late Elmore Leonard who said about his writing, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Friend’s writing is just the right mix of show and tell. I learned about  “The Lakewood Plan,” a model for outsourcing the running of a city, and I saw that when Huy Pham, the Vietnamese worker landed on the ground from the roof of city hall, “his crumpled body was face down on the sidewalk.” Friend writes, “…he landed so hard that his sandals had flown into a nearby bush. He had five dollars in his pocket, and five credit cards.”

Recently, I read Adam Johnson’s brilliantly dystopian 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, set in North Korea and I was caught up in the tale of a North Korean everyman through whose story and nonstory, I  came to know something about North Korea and to care about the protagonist, Pak Jun Do. I was intrigued by the multiple narrators who tell the story. I recommend a review of this book written by a reader named Mike at Goodreads.

The book illustrates that “humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat,” as Ralph Ellison says in Invisible Man. I guess I want this experience of humanity more than I want anything else in my literary choices. When my heart is spoken to I say a work of fiction or nonfiction qualifies as well written.

With this in mind, since reading Elizabeth Strout’s novel Olive Kitteridge I have been feeling that this book is the sine qua non of skillful, heartfelt prose. This may be so despite or because the main character, Olive, can be seen in all her complexity without overlooking ways in which she is not admirable. As I read the book, I put aside judgment and came to experience Olive’s empathy while not overlooking her weakness, cruelties and pettiness. I always wanted the best for her. Strout’s compassion for this character reminded me that one can know what’s lacking in others and care for them nonetheless. This acceptance of others must include noting one’s own imperfections and still caring for the imperfect self. A really powerful lesson I am still learning.

By picking through Kate’s old The New Yorker magazines, I went to Costa Mesa, there being told the facts of that town’s governance and decision-making, which may or may not have lead to the death of Huy Pham. I visited Pyongyang, North Korea in The Orphan Master’s Son to experience truthful fiction about the tragedy of common life in North Korea. And I revisited Olive Kitteridge closer to home in a community on the coast of Maine for further evidence that being human is complicated and empathy always called for. For me, good writing, fiction or nonfiction, has this power to awaken compassion for humanity regardless of why I call the writing “good”. 

How is it for you?

Do Not Detach


PictureRing Cycle Tickets / Alison R.
Tickets to The Ring Cycle sent by the Seattle Opera arrived in a contiguous strip. Apt to be literal, I read the words “Do Not Detach” printed on each ticket to indicate that I should keep the four brightly illustrated tickets attached to each other as they had arrived. So I showed up the first night of the Ring Cycle at McCaw Hall with my ticket strip intact. At the information desk I inquired as to the reasoning behind asking patrons not to detach their tickets. The informative fellow indicated that some patrons will want to frame their connected tickets as art; however, “Do Not Detach” actually refers to the bar code at the bottom of each ticket and not to the four tickets themselves.

I delighted in my misunderstanding. Such foolish consistency must be the hobgoblin of a literal mind. Happily, Amos, the usher at door T on the fifth floor chuckled when I displayed my ticket strip and heard my tale of “Do Not Detach.”

As instructions for increasing satisfaction in my life, “Do Not Detach” seemed applicable. Certainly my weeklong stay in Seattle at Susan’s Sanctuary on Mercer Island attested to the wisdom of not detaching so easily. As I renewed our lapsed friendship, I grew aware of how often in my life I have let go of happy friendships. Susan and I were dorm mates at Occidental College in our freshman year. We both wore green beanies and memorized Yo Triumphe! Not long after we pledged different local sororities, we went our separate ways. And yet, these many years later, Susan and I reconnected in Berkeley when she read in the “Occidental” Class of 1960 that I was avidly Unitarian Universalist in San Francisco. So was she at East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue, Washington. In Berkeley one week, studying to be an interfaith minister, Susan contacted me and we spent meaningful time together. At our next visit in Berkeley she invited me to stay at her home when I was north for the Ring Cycle. I was grateful for her offer.

While at her home Susan and I connected with three other college acquaintances as if Seigfried’s horn had resounded to call together friends from the class of 1960. Yo Triumphe!!

I admire my girlfriend Corky who recently went to Carmel Valley with a friend she has had for 60 years. She and this friend often travel together. Corky has also stayed connected to former girlfriends whom I like very much as well as to high school and college friends. Her life has been enriched by her association with many women, some who have been in her life a very long time.

I have not tended to remain connected with people from my past the way Corky has. I know any comparison between us is not skillful. Buddhist wisdom would have me seeing no one as superior, no one as inferior and no one as equal. In other words, Do Not Compare. And yet I am willing to explore how to integrate her art of reaching out with my own more isolationist impulses.

Having recently enjoyed this renewed connection with Susan, I can’t help but call to mind the other really important friends I cherished all the years I lived in Southern California and how easy it was to move away and detach from those connections.

Fresh from my second recent Ring Cycle and having signed up once again to usher at the San Francisco Opera, I am grateful to my Southern California friend Margie. She insisted I should go to at least one opera before my avowed aversion to the art form hardened. It was as her guest in Los Angeles on September 20, 1996 at a performance of “Norma” by Vincenzo Bellini that I knew I loved opera. Over the years, she and I have not kept in contact although she frequently emails poems she really likes and I can find my name on a long email list among the many people to whom she has remained connected. Maybe it’s time to reach out to her again.

I see that it has been my way to lose touch with people who have mattered in my life, although I feel pretty sure that when we do meet again, our friendships will flow. Of course I could send an email or call them, couldn’t I? I do want them to know they are in my heart. Like Seigfried, I need to get on the horn.