Outside the Lines

At the University of Delaware’s Osher Lifelong learning Institute (OLLI), I’m co-teaching a course called Weaving Your Legacy. My colleague teacher designed the course. It provides a setting and encouragement for class members to work on substantial projects, projects that weave life experiences into meaningful “tapestries” for the benefit and pleasure of current and future generations. While most members of the class are focusing on written work such as memoirs, blogs, fiction, or poetry, projects using other types of creative expression—for example, photograph collections, oral histories, needlework, or drawings—are equally at home in the class.

A lovely part of my father’s legacy is the beautiful collection of drawings that he created. His pen-and-ink (here: Birmingham Meetinghouse, West Chester, Pennsylvania, by Mason Hayek) and pencil drawings express his vision and values.

One of our texts for the course, Creating a Spiritual Legacy: How to Share Your Stories, Values, and Wisdom, by Daniel Taylor, includes a chapter on the “spiritual will,” a document that explicitly or implicitly shares what the author has learned about living a meaningful, satisfying life. A spiritual will can take many forms—among these, a short list of the author’s “truths” (as of that point in the writer’s life), a letter, an essay, or a complete book. The short essay that follows is an example of a spiritual will.

“Outside the Lines” expresses some of my truths, however limited or subject to change, and tells a little bit about how I learned these life lessons. The essay also provides an example of a piece written in the second person (“You. . . .”). I find that writing in the second person, imagining—or perhaps hearing in my mind—what a friend, a mentor, or the wisdom living within us all would say to me, can help me be more objective about challenging topics.

Outside the Lines[1]

When you were four, your Sunday school teacher asked, “Why don’t you color nicely the way Chrissie does?” You stopped thinking about how you wanted to color the picture and instead scribbled all over it in black crayon.

A couple of years later, your elementary-school classmate criticized your shoes, your voice, your answers to the homework, the way you ran in gym class—pretty much any fodder she could find. You thought the lesson was that people didn’t like you, and you learned it well for life.

Beginning in fourth grade, your flute teacher talked a lot about intonation, breath control, and accidentals but never mentioned your expressive sense of melody. You no longer wished to take flute lessons because they were filled with unmet rules. You understood only what you still did wrong, not the musical strengths already your own.

I do still play my flute from time to time–I was teaching high school in Maine at the time this photo was taken.

Not only childhood but all of life is filled with such teachers. To move forward and find your peace, you must release these damaging teachers now. Most have done their best as they knew how. Retain the good they have given you, but then no more.

In nearly every facet of life, we all are teachers, as well as students. When we share our knowledge, we can contribute much. When we encourage others to nourish their individual gifts, we contribute vastly more. You, led by your Inner Light,[2] are the wisest teacher for your own talents, vision, and possibilities.

Also take as your teachers those who have kept their courage in spite of life’s buffeting. After editors tampered with her poems to make them fit the poetry rules of the day, Emily Dickinson no longer published her work but continued to write prolifically. Most would instead have tried to write for the market or given up entirely, but Emily valued her own voice above pleasing those who saw themselves as experts. Think of what the world would have lost if Emily had succumbed to meeting others’ expectations.

My mother was a gifted storyteller. Her stories–many of which are collected in her book Paint Lick, by Doris Burgess Hayek–both recreate the life she knew in her small childhood village and share life lessons she learned in her early years.

Whether your gifts are in dancing or painting, cooking or planting, inventing or healing, solving equations or easing suffering, being cheerful or being kind, you give most to the world through what makes you different: your unique voice and ways of being. If you believe in others’ dictates while denying your own, you will spend your life seeking to fill gaps and fix flaws with borrowed wisdom, rules, and ways. Learn from others, but recast their lessons to match the best of who you are and are becoming, from youth through oldest age.


[1] Part of this post appears in A Woman in Time, by Winifred Burgess Hayek.

[2] The “Inner Light” is a Quaker term for “that of God within.”

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