Thursday, June 30, 2011

The End is Near (The Thesis Version)

No, I am not writing about the second coming. I have done that before, but this time my purpose in writing is not nearly as lofty.  

Forgive me.  I am about to embark on a fairly narcissistic reflection of the last year.  And after that, I think I will be done whining about my thesis.  

I have turned in what may be the last version of my research on Internet churches.  And now I'm waiting. Waiting to hear if I'm done.  Waiting to hear if I can get a signature from the department chair.  Waiting.  

Ironically, as I tagged the printed copy for review, I penciled in two slight (but not insignificant) changes.  

Both my department readers said the same thing to me when I met with them last week: Writing a master's thesis is more about the learning process than anything else.  Their remarks have prompted me to reflect on the process of writing this thesis and the things I have learned.  

On writing and the writing process.
  • I use the same words over and over and over again.  This is not the same as deliberate repetition, which can be a rhetorical strategy.  No.  This is laziness.  For example, in one paragraph I used the word "claims" three different times.  The same goes for "notes" and "observes."  I like the word "indeed" as a transition.  I had to go through the thesis with the search category, highlight the guilty words with different colors and then go through the printed text looking for too many of the same color on the same page.  As a result, I have developed a long list of optional words.  This may be very useful in the future.  Like when I start writing my book.  
  • I'm only partly joking about that last part.  I've always wished I could write a book, but frankly, the length of a book scares me.  I have writing ADD.  And I tend to walk away from things that get difficult.  Writing two-to-three page academic reflections and lengthy blogs on any topic are significantly easier than 100-page tomes.  I can't even imagine what it would be like to write a dissertation.  Or a book.  Carrying ideas through from beginning to end is more difficult than I ever imagined.  I critique other people's writing when they don't do this well.  And now I find myself guilty of the same writing weakness.  I suppose I might get better at this if I had more practice.
  • Another way to avoid this is to examine other people's writing to figure out how they avoid this weakness and others.  In fact, I've started doing this to learn more about the writing process in general.  How do authors introduce their arguments?  How do they incorporate multiple ideas?  How do they use other people's research?  And then extend it?  How do they end their articles?  I've definitely learned more about academic writing in this thesis process than I ever did in the papers I wrote for my graduate classes.  
  • I absolutely love research.  I want to know more about everything.  I want to continue this process forever and ever and ever.  However, at some point I just have to pick a direction and go with it.  In addition, I have to figure out what I want to say and say it.  I can't just ramble forever, which is my tendency.  Rambling only works for writers like Donald Miller
On my own writing process.  And about myself.
  • I love to write.  More than that, I need to write.  But writing takes a great deal out of me.  I haven't written in this blog because it just takes a lot of time.  And I needed to focus on finishing.  
  • I don't finish well.  I know this is true with cleaning and organizing.  I will do an impeccable job until right at the end, and then I walk away.  The closer I got to finishing this thesis, the more panicked I got, and the more I just wanted to quit.  I doubted that I would ever be done.  
  • I am easily distracted.  More than that, I crave distractions.  When I'm working on long-term projects, I prefer to do little tasks that I can finish quickly.  Or that make me smile.  I also like projects with visible or edible results.  Sometimes distractions help me focus.  And sometimes they keep me from focusing.  I think I need to learn to discern the difference. 
  • I also need to exercise self-discipline.  I need to make myself keep going when I want to walk away. And when the task of explaining myself seems too daunting, I need to create strategies that help me keep moving forward.  This summer, my tutoring job, that got me on campus before 8:00 in the morning forced me to create a writing schedule.  I won't always have that kind of forced discipline, which means I need to invent structures in my life that allow me to set goals and see them through.  
  • I need deadlines.  Knowing that I didn't have any more schedule extensions kept me in the office writing every single day.  I don't know how to create artificial deadlines for writing, but apparently I need to do that.  
  • Oh yes.  My friends are amazing.  I had a handful of women in my life that lovingly harassed me so that I wouldn't procrastinate.  I can't say enough about these women.  (It's all good.)  Thank you.  
Something else I learned about myself:
  • Sometimes I get so focused on what I'm doing that I forget to pay attention to friends and family.  Or God.  Oh, I never forget.  But I don't nourish those relationships.  They have all given me grace and love and have put up with my self-focused attitudes.  In the future, I want to learn to balance life and goals and achievement. I haven't learned that in 51 years.  But I think I might be a little better than I used to be so I am hopeful.  
Ideally I will take what I learned and use it in the future.  We shall see.  

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Circle of Blessings

Last night we drove up to Pasadena to celebrate Ashley's graduation from high school.  The trip up to Pasadena took more than two hours.  We got home at exactly 12:34 a.m. Honestly, we wouldn't do this for just anyone.  Most of the time we're fast asleep by 9:45.  We wake up promptly at 5:46 every single morning.  Including today.

Ashley is an amazing young woman who graduated at the top of her class.  She and Caitlin competed together in debate last year.  During her senior year of high school, Ashley competed for Pasadena Community College this spring and won the national championship.  She will attend Columbia University in the fall.  More than one Ivy League school accepted her, but Columbia offered her a scholarship and so she chose to go to New York.

But none of those accomplishments would make me want to drive to Pasadena.

Caitlin met Ashley at Debate Camp up in Santa Clara.  This was Cait's second year to go to camp, but that year she had decided to try Lincoln-Douglass debate (LD) instead of Team Policy.  Because LD  debaters compete without partners, Caitlin traveled to Santa Clara alone.  She knew people at the camp, but they all competed in the team division.  The classes met separately and meal times didn't coincide.  Caitlin felt lost and alone

I called Caitlin at the end of the first day, and she wanted to hop on a plane and come home.  We prayed over the phone and I wondered what I was thinking to send Caitlin all the way up to the Bay Area by herself. Because she knew no one in LD, she had no one to go to restaurants with.  She ate alone.  She almost missed the shuttle from the hotel to the college.

Enter Ashley.  And the entire Mendez family.

I'm not exactly sure how it happened, but Ashley and Caitlin started talking.  And after that the Mendez family gave Cait rides to the college.  They took her to dinner.  Caitlin had a friend.  And a new family.

They stayed in touch after debate camp and when Caitlin went to the National Tournament in South Carolina the next year, Ashley texted encouraging messages to her every single day.  It had been a tough year with her team.  A team member had accused her of treating an opponent in an ungodly manner, and instead of discussing it with her privately, the coach brought up the topic with the whole club.  He didn't say her name, but nearly every debater knew exactly who he was talking about.  Caitlin strives to be kind to everyone, and the incident completely eroded her confidence.  By the end of the season, when she was at the National Tournament, Caitlin felt like her own team had abandoned her.  Ashley's kind words strengthened her throughout the week.  I had never met Ashley at the time, but I loved her.

That summer, Caitlin considered dropping out of debate.  The whole club thing had nearly destroyed her.

And then Ashley invited Caitlin to join her club.  Channel Islands.

She only went to one club meeting in Ventura, but Ashley arranged to have the coach come to her house near Pasadena.  Twice.  At tournaments, Caitlin spent time with her new team.  They welcomed her and loved her.  It was the best season ever.  Not just because she won a lot, but because she had friends.   And for the first time ever, Caitlin felt like she was actually good at debate.  She conquered a lot of fears that year, and at the end of the season, she felt like maybe, just maybe, she might be a little bit smart.

Duane and I had a great time with all the parents from Channel Islands.  But especially the Mendez family.  They became unique and amazing friends.  We still stay in touch, but not as much as I would like.

And that's a great story.  Certainly Ashley deserves this tribute because of her kindness to my daughter.  However, there's another part of this story that I nearly forgot.  Until last night.

Five or six years ago, my older daughter Kirsten traveled up to Pasadena to meet Lina, a friend's fiancĂ©e.   Kirsten and Lina hit it off immediately, and then two weeks after they met, Lina's dad died suddenly of a heart attack.  Kirsten went up to the funeral and visited frequently after that.  Kirsten's friend and Lina ended up breaking off their engagement, but Kirsten and Lina continued to spend as much time as possible together.  And that meant becoming part of Lina's family.

Ide, Lina's mom, the principal of a Christian home school organization, asked Kirsten if she would teach a debate class, and because Kirsten loved Ide, and because she loves teaching debate, she conducted a debate seminar.

And that's when Ashley and the Mendez family got interested in debate.  And that's what took them up to Santa Clara where they blessed our family enormously.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

And this is the circle of blessings.  Kirsten blesses Ide and a group of students she doesn't even know.  And one of those students turns around and blesses Caitlin.

It's beautiful, really.   

Caitlin's senior year would have been so very different if Kirsten had decided she didn't have time for trips to Pasadena or teaching kids debate.  Of course Kirsten had no way of knowing how this would change her sister's life.

We serve.  We love.  We give ourselves away.  Not for what we'll get back, but because of love.  
We never know how it will turn out.

This time we get to see the circle.  It still makes me smile when I think about it.  We invested time and money in helping Kirsten with debate, and then we released her to do whatever she wanted with her skills.  She turned them into a way to bless others.  And then the blessing came back to us.  

There are other circles I can't even begin to understand.  The many, many people who poured into her life.  And into their lives.  And so on.  

You just never know.  
But God does.