Here we are

I frequently tell my composition students to break the task of academic essay writing into steps that work for them–very Aristotelian of me. Many educated persons were “taught to think” using this method, basically by bundling concepts together into categories. I tell my students that each person may develop a different approach. Sometimes traditional categories don’t work for a particular kind of thoughtful mind.

My own, for example. I have had to study to get to the “rational,” and it intrigues me (science mind! philosophy mind!). But the mythic and the discombobulated and the circuitous: my default consciousness heads into those places when left to wander without a focused task.

A student in my class asked me why I decided to teach college. The funny thing is that it did not feel as though it were a decision on my part. It was a series of steps that seemed unrelated at the time.

One perspective–I graduated with a Philosophy and English bachelor’s degree at the moment of the worst economic period since the Great Depression (the late 1970s). I was a good speller. I got a job proofreading. From there, a series of jobs, and periods without jobs, and marriage and children and a graduate degree and wanting to do a little part time work and teaching poetry workshops in schools…


Another perspective–I became entranced with poetry as a young adult. I read and read, and I also wrote; joined a writing critique group when David Dunn shyly invited me to the informal weekly sessions in Brooklyn. Brooklyn was not fashionable then. I had a job that paid my rent, barely. I wrote constantly, and David encouraged me to read aloud. Ariel Dawson encouraged me to submit my work to magazines. Ploddingly, and without much confidence, I followed my friends’ advice. I learned to speak in public, to groups of people who might not always be open to what I had to say. Later, I raised two children. How like teaching these things are…

I was invited to teach. I tried it. There are tasks at which I am more competent, but I get by. Some of my students thank me.

I still prefer tutoring and coaching, working one-to-one with a student, side by side in the task of urging thoughts into clarity in the form of written text. Here I am. The semester has started. Wrench those random ideas into curriculum, work on word order and concise expression. Be with the student where he or she is. Start there. Be confident. The next step will evolve.

A series of seemingly unrelated events, careers, moves, ideas, loves–those are our human foundations.

And here we are.


Confidence redux

“When discussing confidence, for instance, I ask first what this confidence thing is that people want more of…I theorize that confidence isn’t something you feel internally, but rather a trait others ascribe to you when you’re focused and comfortable with what you’re doing. So you don’t need more confidence. You need less of something you already have in excess: caring what other people think about you.”  ~Augusten Burroughs, in 29 July 2012 New York Times Book Review.


In a recent post, I mentioned Madeleine Albright’s definition of a good leader as a person who is “confident but not certain.” It occurs to me, after reading Augusten Burroughs’ comments, that U.S. society tends to confuse self-confidence with self-esteem. And that his initial question is such a good one: what is this thing called confidence? Why is it considered to be such an excellent attribute? (Why do so many people bemoan their lack of it, or explain their “failures” to an absence of it?)

Many recent articles on parenting and child-raising complain that “we” have given our children too much of it, but I think that’s the difference between self-esteem and self-confidence. One can develop self-esteem even when there is no reason for it beyond the natural narcissism of human nature. But let’s go with Burroughs’ definition that confidence is something assigned to us by others when we are not worrying so much about what they think.

We can just go about being fairly competent, and others will find us confident; and if they don’t, but we are not overly invested in what others think, we will still be displaying confidence. And how do we gain confidence? By trying and failing, and by trying and succeeding, and by learning about the world in the moment without a freight train of anxieties looming behind us at all times.


Herewith, a brief essay I wrote in 1995 that speaks, in some ways, to this idea of confidence.


It’s the time of year when my brush pile gets enormous, and I am thinking about sticks. Late winter winds bring down boughs; I get out my loppers and pruners. I cut back the grapevines and later, the roses. I prune the deadwood out of viburnums and rhododendrons. When my children’s playmates come to visit, at the end of an hour at least one child is running around with a stick, building a secret door with pine boughs or poking garden soil with the end of a branch. Branches with foliage become fans, palm trees, wings, walls. Bare sticks are generally swords or longbows; but they can also be barricades, horses, banners. No child is ever bored who has a yard full of sticks.

Stick–it was one of my son’s earliest vocabulary words. I remember how, at 16 months, he wandered about the yard learning names for things. I had already taught him about litter when he started picking up cigarette butts and candy wrappers on the street: “No,” I said. “Litter. Dirty. Dirty thing.” Litter went into a trash can.

“Doorty,” he acknowledged, “Doorty ting.” Then a stick caught his eye, a twig smooth, slim, just the right size to hold in his chubby hand. He stooped, then looked up at me.

“Doorty ting?” he enquired.

“No, stick!” I laughed. He grabbed it and smiled eagerly, examined it and waved it in the air while exclaiming, “Teek! Teek!”

He toddled about gathering and discarding sticks, fascinated by each on in turn. I watched nervously as he started to walk down our garden steps. In each hand he carried a small stick, as if for balance. Steps were, for him, still a new obstacle to encounter in an upright position–I wanted to run over and grab his hand. But I was enormously pregnant at the time and running was out of the question. I didn’t even call to him, “Be careful,” fearing I’d break his concentration. I held back, taming the voice inside that reprimanded me–stop him, he’ll poke his eye out!

He reached the bottom of the stairs safely, looked back at me and, waving both arms, called, “Teek, Mama, teek!” I felt proud of his confidence in  his newfound abilities. I felt I could perhaps begin the long process of letting him go–just a little–to explore the world more freely, without my needing to be quite so protective.

My son still loves to play with sticks, to collect them. Sometimes when I see him hauling a great branch out of the brushpile I think of that April day six years ago and of the impact small events may have upon our lives. For that day was the first time I really recognized that the time had come to allow him to experiment with life in h is own way. And that I could safely let him start on that adventure.

It’s a small thing, to walk down steps unaided, grasping sticks. A small thing, but a basic one. The desire to hang on, the need to let go, the discovery of a careful balance–all these things begin early in our lives, and we seldom recall them. Yet they are as basic as sticks, as the first tools we learn to manipulate and use for all of our future imaginings.


photo ann e. michaelIt has been many years since I made those observations. And it is not so easy to step back, let go–allow children to make their own decisions, their own mistakes, to experience their own failures and allow them space to feel their own joys.

Raising children taught me a great deal I might never have learned otherwise. I’ve never reflected before on whether I was confident as a mother, but reading this old essay makes me believe that I was. Certainly, if Burroughs’ definition is accurate, I was “focused and comfortable with what you’re doing.” That’s how I feel when I am truly engaged with an experience–writing, teaching, gardening…

Uncertainties and failures abound. But so do successes.

Confident but not certain: the garden

Recently, I listened to a radio interview with Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, who is promoting her latest book. The interviewer asked her what quality she thought most crucial to a good leader. Albright has met many, many leaders; she is also a brilliant person. It was a good question to ask her, and she had an excellent and thought-provoking answer: A good leader should be confident, but not certain. (If you download the mp3 file in the link above, her explanation of this idea comes near the end of the program.) Powerful people who are both confident and certain of themselves, their aims, knowledge, and ideas, are too likely to veer into autocratic dictatorship. Those who are neither certain nor confident are too easily swayed by advisors with their own agendas or are unable to make decisive moves. A person who is open-minded–and therefore not certain–but who is confident in his or her ability to make a good decision once the facts are in, leads wisely and well even when mistakes occur due to faulty information or circumstances beyond anyone’s control.

We could all benefit from becoming more confident and less certain. It strikes me that Socrates might have possessed this pair of qualities. The philosopher continues to question and is therefore not certain; but the uncertainty isn’t of the waffling, inconclusive kind. Uncertainty in Albright’s use of the word means curious, inquisitive, searching. The confident person trusts his or her values (confidence, from fidere, “to trust”) but does not let dogma or single-perspective “certainties” obscure research, facts, other perspectives.

I will grant that this approach is difficult for us humans, and that is why so few leaders possess this pair of traits. While I have no interest in becoming a world leader, I plan to keep Albright’s phrase in mind and discover whether I can become more confident and less certain in my life.

This bust resides in the Louvre, and the image was found here:

Gardening is one area that relates well to confidence and uncertainty, though in a slightly different form of practice. I’ve been a gardener for over 30 years, and one thing you learn when you garden is that there are no certainties. Planning takes mental and physical effort and preparation, and then there are the endless obstacles involved in planting and overcoming soil deficiencies, insects, fungi, and weather inconsistencies just to name a few. Am I a confident gardener? Yes. Years of research, experiment, study, practice, trial and error–and successes–have made me confident. But there are always new hybrids to try, new species to plant, and there are problems that never seem to go away (why can’t I get carrots to grow here, when I have grown carrots every other place I’ve lived? How to keep certain fungi at bay using organic means?).

And one never has any sort of surety or pledge (the etymology of “certainty”) that those tomatoes will ripen without blossom end rot or fusarium wilt, that the pigweed will not take over during the gardener’s five-day vacation (well, that’s almost a certainty!), or that hail will not wreck the whole summer’s worth of plantings.

Ann E. Michael

June, 2009–after the hailstorm

This year, my vegetable garden is producing well despite overbearing heat, hard brief rains, and far too many weeds. I feel annoyed with its overgrown appearance, but one thing about gardens is you get another chance as long as you can wait a couple of seasons.

Meanwhile, with a little more thought and research, I’m confident I can plan an even better garden next year.