Open Books

by Assisted Living

Each of us belongs to larger groups or systems that have some investment in our staying exactly the same as we are now. If we begin to change our old patterns of silence or vagueness or ineffective fighting and blaming, we will inevitably meet with a strong resistance or countermove. This “Change back!” reaction will come both from inside our own selves and from significant others around us. We will see how it is those closest to us who often have the greatest investment in our staying the same, despite whatever criticisms and complaints they may openly voice. We also resist the very changes that we seek. This resistance to change, like the will to change, is a natural and universal aspect of all human systems.

(From Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger pgs. 14-15)


8 Writing Lessons from the FLOTUS

“How we urged them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level.”

Lesson four: Unleash the power of three. Notice how often the speaker relies upon a pattern of three to make her point. This is one of the oldest tricks in the orator’s book. In literature, three is always the largest number. “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” Four examples or 40 become an inventory. Three encompasses the world, creating the illusion we know everything we need to know.

“Our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”

Lesson five: Express your best thought in a short sentence. This is one of the best lines in the speech for a number of reasons. It’s a short sentence, only seven words. Each word is a single syllable. There is parallelism between “they go low” and “we go high,” emphasized by the repetition of the word “go.” The sentence is complex, that is, it begins with a subordinate clause “When they go low,” which describes the opponent’s weak move, followed by a main clause that gives greater weight to the speaker’s values.

“Kids like the little black boy who looked up at my husband, his eyes wide with hope, and he wondered, Is my hair like yours?”

Lesson six: Find a focus. Stick with it. In the story “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson, the winner of the town’s annual lottery gets stoned to death. It is a surprise ending, but there are several mentions of the word ‘stones’ as foreshadowing — never “rocks.”

If I had to choose one word to describe the speech, it would be “kids.” It is repeated five times on a single page. She also uses words like children, sons and daughters, but the informality of kids draws you in: “So, how are the kids?” There is a significant literature in African-American culture about the issue, the problem, the glory of hair. Of “good” hair, and “bad” hair. It feels almost daring for Michelle Obama to refer to this incident, to turn a taboo into a parable and a blessing.

See Roy Peter Clark’s full piece at Poynter here.

See Mrs. Obama’s speech here or below.

Thanks, Ed!

Being Present

In an opinion piece about not being alone, Johnathan Foer writes about the diminished substitutes we’ve accepted and become with the progression of technology in communication:

Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. One is not always home, so the answering machine made a kind of interaction possible without the person being near his phone. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. And then texting, which facilitated yet faster, and more mobile, messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.

But then a funny thing happened: we began to prefer the diminished substitutes. It’s easier to make a phone call than to schlep to see someone in person. Leaving a message on someone’s machine is easier than having a phone conversation — you can say what you need to say without a response; hard news is easier to leave; it’s easier to check in without becoming entangled. So we began calling when we knew no one would pick up.

Shooting off an e-mail is easier, still, because one can hide behind the absence of vocal inflection, and of course there’s no chance of accidentally catching someone. And texting is even easier, as the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.

You can find the full piece at the NYT here.

Why Should It Mean So Much

Dag Hammarskjold, a twentieth-century diplomat, advisor, and leader is a companion of mine (through the text).  I read selections from his Markings from time to time.  They are poems, reflections, meditations, and musings.  Last night I read a few.  Here’s one from 1952 that seems compelling to me today:

How ridiculous, this need of yours to communicate!  Why should it mean so much to you that at least one person has seen the inside of your life?  Why should you write down all this, for yourself, to be sure–perhaps, though, for others as well?

I’m in the middle of revising another draft of my manuscript.  I’m walking through some thoughtful edits from Maya Rock, and the walk is both enlivening and humbling.

I’ve been sick for more than two weeks thanks to my generous son.  I’m still a little congested, in the head especially, and I mean that, at least, in two ways.  But Hammarskjold’s words come alongside me as I’m reading my edits, adding and cutting and thinking and shaking my head at some of the assumptions I make in my story.

I’m considering my draft in light of his reflection.  How he says writing, or communicating, allows a person to see the inside of your life.  How communication is for others.  It really takes me out of my head, where all the assumptions are, where all the answers are, and delivers them onto the page, into the conversation, in the space where communication happens between two people.

10 Steps To Better Emails

This list is from Literary Agent, Rachelle Gardner.  I have used several of these regularly in the past, but I can probably add a few into my practice.  What about you?

10 Steps to Writing Better Emails

1. Keep it brief.

Many people recommend the three-sentence rule: If you can say what you need to in 3 sentences or less, do it! If not, keep it as close to 3 sentences as possible. If you have something in-depth that will take several paragraphs, consider talking to the person instead. You know, talking. Like they used to do in the old days.

2. Pause before hitting Send.

Is it completely necessary? Does it have to go NOW? If it can possibly wait, then use the DRAFT function of your email program to save it. Once a week, pull up all your drafts and only send the ones that are still necessary. This is especially handy if you tend to send several emails a week to one person. Can they be consolidated?

3. Get to the point.

Make it easy for the recipient to get the gist of your message right away. Don’t ramble.

4. Make questions and action points stand out.

DON’T bury your questions throughout the email in the middle of paragraphs! If there is action needed, or a question that needs an answer, make it VERY obvious. For example, you might want to number them and put them at the end of your email.

5. Use NNTR

I’ve started putting “NNTR” at the end of the subject line. It means No Need To Reply. This can save people lots of time and eliminate needless back-and-forth.

6. Use EOM

Another one of my favorites – I put “EOM” at the end of the subject line to indicate “End of Message.” That is, the entire message is in the subject line. So in responding to an email requesting a phone call, my subject line might say, “I’ll call you Tues 3/6 at 4pm eastern — EOM.” And the recipient doesn’t even need to open the email, they’ve got all the info they need.

7. Use a relevant subject line

Try NOT to use a generic subject line, such as “Thought you might want to know…” The subject line is for… wait for it… the actual subject of your email.

8. Change the subject line when necessary

If you’re emailing back and forth with someone, and the topic changes mid-conversation, change the subject line! This goes extra for those of you who never actually start a new email stream, but whenever you want to email someone, you simply grab the last email from them and hit “Reply.” Change the subject line, please.

9. DON’T use “Quick Question”  

Avoid that oldie-but-goodie in the subject line unless you want your recipient to shoot themselves. First, a quick question is never quick. Second, it’s generic and tells nothing. It’s much better for your subject line to say, “Question about why my agent never returns my emails.” At least that’s specific. And memorable.

10. Remember that every time you send an email, somewhere a fairy dies.

Well, maybe not. But it should at least make us think twice about it!

→ Bonus: What about saying “thank you”?

To read Rachelle’s entire post, click here.

How You Talk Matters

While I had little to say about valentining Monday, I do have something to say about relationships.  In a relationship, how you talk and how you listen matters.  That’s a basic opening for a blog post, I know.  It’s basic, even almost boring.  It’s simple, though, in the words of a wise woman I met, it’s not always easy

If you speak with care, it alters the listener’s ears in a way that opens their hearts to you.  If you speak with irritation or impatience, that, too, alters the listener.  It doesn’t matter if you’re listening in a meeting or talking in an interview.  If you’re sipping coffee or tea with a friend.  If you’re hearing about your spouse’s day.  If you’re asking your children about school. 

When you communicate with care, people notice.  They may not mention it, but deep down their spirit is refreshed in your act of extending a kind word or enough love to listen.  I don’t do this naturally.  I’ve worked on this skill for years, putting myself in a situation requiring me to pay attention or listen or talk with care.  Sometimes I hate it.  Other times, it’s the most human thing I do.  Then, there are those moments, those conversations where “really good listening” is done to me or done for me.  I’m looking forward to one of those conversations next week, my monthly spiritual direction appointment. 

I don’t know that I’ve mentioned spiritual direction on this blog.  It’s kinda like counseling.  Kinda.  It’s a classical spiritual discipline, an old practice in religious traditions where a trained “director” guides, talks with, listens with, and directs another person.  In some sense, spiritual directors are like pastors and they are also like counselors.  Pastors provide spiritual direction to people in our churches, even when we don’t necessarily know it.  And counselors provide the same as the work of counseling and direction often converge.  In direction, though, the context is larger.  The relationship is not attempting to work on a problem or an illness or a life development, as much as it’s working on something about God.  There is both nothing to be done in spiritual direction and very much to be done.  You can’t fix God, but you can learn to live in response to God, learn to be aware of God, and learn to be aware of your feelings about God and other things.

You don’t have to have an appointment with a spiritual director or with a pastor to feel heard.  You can be heard by a good friend or a stranger.  You can listen and talk with care regardless of your relationship to a person. 

So in the general spirit of valenting–along with my post the other day, to which someone asked me “What did Dawn say about your post?” and I said, “Dawn could have written the post for me”–Talk well, friends.  Listen closely.  It’ll make your relationship blossom.  It matters.

More on Marriage: Interview with Johnathan & Toni Alvarado, authors of Let’s Stay Together

In my last post, I reflected upon my role as pastor in relation to marriage and divorce.  In some ways, I’m continuing that reflection with what I offer you in this post.

I read Let’s Stay Together this year.  It’s by two of my mentors, Bishop Johnathan Alvarado and his wife and colleague, Dr. Toni Alvarado.  I asked them a few questions about their book, which I commend to you if you’re interested in marriage, interested in getting married, or serious about strengthening yourself in relation to a long-term committed relationship.  As I’ve told them, I am thankful for their willingness to teach others about marriage, to mentor me and my wife in our marriage, as well as their hard work in living what they say.  I’m realistic but I hold them to a high bar, which they, by grace, reach gracefully.

1)      What motivated you to write Let’s Stay Together?

We have been concerned with the rising divorce rate within the body of Christ.  We noticed that divorces were not remanded to the ranks of the laity exclusively but even amongst the clergy and leaders within the body of Christ divorce seems to be recurring and even acceptable.  Let’s Stay Together is an attempt to stop the hemorrhage and provide strategies and solutions for longevity and success in marriage. Further, we carry a burden to prepare singles who are desirous of marriage for healthy and productive relationships.

 2)      Your commitment to marriage shines in this book.  At the same time, you counsel couples and you see the hardships people face when trying to live out their marital vows in our society.  How do you maintain your conviction that “divorce was not an option” when that option is so accessible?

We maintain that conviction because we believe that the biblical mandate for marriage carries with it the ability to fulfill its requisites.  Second, we understand that strong marriages are the building blocks for a society.  Not only do we purport that it is a Christian mandate but also it is a necessary institution for the continuance of any civil society.  Finally, the divorced persons with whom we have spoken and/or counseled have consistently confirmed our suspicions that divorce is not all that it’s cracked up to be!  There are those who after having read our book have testified that if they had only known to apply some of the skills that we enumerate, they would have never divorced in the first place. 

 3)      In what ways can a couple mature their beliefs about the long-term covenant of marriage before getting married?

We are strong advocates for pre-marital counseling.  In our contemporary culture, people do more to get a “drivers license” than they do to get a “marriage license.”  In our premarital counseling, not only do couples learn skills that give them the opportunity to have a good marriage but they also get first hand exposure to what a healthy marriage could look like.  The combination of information and impartation gives premarital couples a foundation for marital success.

 4)      You are leaders.  Are their any specific ways leaders are vulnerable to marital failure?

Yes.  Public leaders are particularly vulnerable to marital failure precisely because of the public nature of the lives that they lead.  The pressure of genuinely trying to be a healthy example to others adds a dimension to the marital relationship that must be managed with skill and prudence.  Most couples do not divorce because of a lack of love, but rather they divorce because they lack the skills necessary to stay married, especially while living in the public eye.  We address this in the chapter of the book entitled: “Mega business, career, and ministry requires a mega-marriage.”

5)      One reason I wanted to interview you was to ask you this question.  How have divorces by significant leaders (e.g., Al and Tipper Gore) and celebrity figures in our country informed and challenged how readers hear your relationship strategies?  Does the ease with which many people approach marital dissolution, or not being married for that matter, change how you engage with couples who desire healthy marriages?

We live in an age where the media no longer reflects the common life of the people but rather it frames and crafts the lives that we live.  The media moguls are both predictive and determinative as to how we will live.  Because of this, public figures have more influence on public life than they realize.  When public figures and “leaders” within our society dismiss their marriages without so much as a tear it tacitly gives others the permission or even the encouragement to do the same.  It does change the way in which we have to counsel and instruct intended couples and married couples.  We have to teach them to be counter-cultural if they are going to be successful in their marriages.  

 6)      This is a book about marriage, but a lot of people aren’t married.  And might not get married.  Is there something in this book for them, and if so, what might they find?

While this book is specifically couched in the context of marriage, it is principally a book of relationship strategies.  In the book, we teach strategies that can be beneficial to any relationship.  In any relationship two people have to be able to communicate effectively so we teach principles of good communication.  In every relationship some conflict will arise therefore we teach principles of negotiation for positive resolution.  We believe that this book has something for everyone, not just married couples.  As a matter of fact, our singles are purchasing and enjoying reading the book at least as much as our married and intended couples!

 7)      What are one or two things you want readers to takeaway from Let’s Stay Together?

Here they are: 

  • We want our readers to take away the passion that we have for being married.  We endeavor, through our candid examples and transparent anecdotes to be as forthcoming and genuine as possible while simultaneously painting a realistic picture of the work involved in having a good marriage.  We believe that marriage is viable, beneficial, and worth the effort it takes to enjoy life together. 


  • For our readers who may be unmarried, we desire to inspire, encourage, and to demonstrate to them that in spite of all of the negativity that is so aggrandized, marriage still works.  The skills that we teach will enhance their lives and every relationship that they may have. 


  • Finally, we want every reader to take away the knowledge and tools to build a strong, vibrant, and successful marriage.  It is our hope that everyone who reads this work will discover the blessings of life together, just as we have. 

8)     How can readers of this blog learn about your book and the other dozen things you do?

The book can be purcashed on our website.  Of course they can find us on our blog and at the following links: