If asked what achievement this past year makes me feel most proud, I will say:
learning to roll my Rs.
I am 43. I've always wanted to roll my Rs, and periodically, would try. If I met a speech pathologist or an actor or a linguist, I would ask for tips and drills, but deep inside I thought I could not do it. Something genetic, anatomical--the way I aspirate my s's or something. A disability that made it a good thing I was born in America, where the defect isn't so noticeable in daily speech. One morning as my seven-year-old lay in bed with me and my husband, idly practicing a skill new to him, I asked him to show me what he was doing. After several tries I had to pull the sheet over my head to continue in privacy, because I was crying in frustration. I wanted to just spontaneously be able to do this thing. Not unlike the way I kind of expect to sit at a piano and let the music roll off my fingers like Hoagy Carmichael. I continued in the shower, where the water hid my tears and, as it turns out, loosened the sides of my mouth in a particular way that seemed to help my tongue roll a tiny bit, maybe once. I started pronouncing H-D-Rrrr over and over. Starting with an H sound felt easier. I did another thing differently on this particular morning--I didn't give up. I just stood there, and then sat there, in the shower, saying H-D-Rrrrr again and again until, yes, my R's did start to roll. H joined me in the bathroom and said "Hey! You're doing it!" "I know!" I sobbed. I couldn't believe it. I left the bathroom wrapped in a towel, shouting, "Arrrrrribba!!"
If I took the time, I could map these minor benchmarks over the years, and show how they lead to the major shifts I've managed in my life. We think of these little skills as vital building blocks to children, but how about adults? In the months following my acquistion of this small thing, I've had a much more accepting attitude about approaching creative projects, letting them build bit by bit, slowing myself to learn tiny things instead of rushing impatiently toward completion of something, anything.
Last night, I learned to read my poems in public as a featured reader. It's not exactly the first time I've done it, but it was the first time I was alone with my poems and prose onstage in front of so many strangers. I wasn't nervous, I was very very cold, but the really important thing about it was the atmosphere of the place, which I think is partly due to the building itself, Woodstock's Colonly Cafe, which has a palpably sweet and generous spirit, and was matched by the kindness and attentiveness of the reading series organizer, Philip Levine, and the warmth of the audience (if not the air; we all wore most of our outerwear throughout the evening). I may finally be over the anxious fantasy that if people aren't throwing tomatoes at me, they are wishing they could.
These days, a goal of mine is to learn to quickly relax the muscles around my eyes. I want to be able to release muscles that seem always to be engaged, even in my sleep, and feel them slack across my cheeks and temples for longer and longer periods of time. This little skill I take to be instrumental in shifting around some set ways I have related to judgment, vigilance, expectation, and rank (SmartMom has written beautifully on this. See "Ms. Measurement" at
If you pick something small enough, there's probably something you can learn to do every day.