On preparing for spring. Hahahahaha.

They say it’s spring now.  I say: we have double-digit negatives most nights this week.  They say spring is coming.  I say: we have to get through mud season first, and we’re a far cry from the kind of thaw that entails.  Basically, I’m a cynic.  It’s seasonal.  It’s Maine. It’s Vitamin D deficiency.  Whatever.

I did, however, replace a broken shop-light today so that I can start my third and fourth flats of seeds in the basement.  My onions, leeks, brussels sprouts, cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers are all going strong.  (Trying cinnamon sprinkled on the soil surface this year to fight the damping-off I’ve struggled with the past two years…Have you tried that?  Is it a myth?)  I’m fired up about the parsley, the new lavender, the zinnias, the basil.  So, in essence, I’m ready for the theoretical reality of spring’s approach, but in my heart of hearts, I believe we’re stuck in sleet-land forever.

It’s this way on all fronts sometimes: you have a nice morning with one son, and that afternoon the second one pukes all over.  You book a fun new consulting gig only to learn that issues of responsiveness might be a drag.  You foolishly sign up to run a training session for a board you serve on, then find someone awesome to run it for you, and then find your leadership partners are reluctant to bring in someone else, which was the whole idea in the first place.  GET WITH THE PROGRAM, WORLD.  Enough puking and dragging-of-feet.  Let’s make some plans and get ‘em done.

So I’ve got my graph paper out for the garden, and all my gorgeous books on potager designs; I’ve got a new necklace and a new lipstick for when the consulting gets its act together; I’m getting VERY CLEAR with my board partners about the limits of my available time for volunteer program design and delivery.  It might still be winter, or even mud season, in the spirit of the world, but I’m heading for the bright lights of summer.  Are you with me?

On differences of perspective.

We all approach the world in different ways; heck, we occupy different worlds, for the most part.  Even those of us who live together, who adore each other, and who share, in many ways, similar attitudes and beliefs.  Often, those differences are a real problem, and sometimes they’re just plain funny.

My husband is a very relaxed guy.  I am not.  I have always liked order.  He doesn’t care that much.  I’m sure this is about differences of upbringing: his was secure and loving, so he didn’t feel much need to control his environment.  I, on the other hand, did.  Anyway, we’ve struggled with this range of issues for the nearly twenty years we’ve been together, and usually with good humor.  Which is where this example comes in:

We recently bought a new fridge/freezer when our old one broke.  We got a pretty budget model which we thought would do fine.  Until we tried to load the freezer at home and realized that its single shelf is fixed in place six inches from the bottom and twelve from the top (never mind that it bows in the middle under ordinary weight).  I tried, for a few weeks, to live with the necessary chaos of frozen fruits and veg that results from this total lack of structure, and then I lost it.  The seventh time I tried to remove a single bag of peas and ended up working with both hands and my whole torso to staunch the flow of frozen food tumbling forth from the maw of this hideous beast, I hollered.  Len ambled in, helped put everything away again, and then stepped back as I started to, er, explain that we were going to buy BINS, TODAY, because we were going to create a SYSTEM, because WHO LIVES LIKE THIS?  I may have been emphatic, even vehement.  Len, bold man that he is, grinned at me and said, as he patted the freezer gently:

“We already have a system!  Frozen stuff goes in here.”

(Yes, we bought the bins.  No, I still can’t stop laughing.)

On our most valuable commodity: time.

What are the two things we complain about most? Lack of money and lack of time.  But when you get right down to it, we aren’t even complaining about lack of time anymore.  We just believe that we have no time and live accordingly.

Money is where we focus our attention, for good reasons (often).  There is a threshold of “enough” money below which we experience real suffering: not enough food, not enough medicine, no winter boots, a car that can’t get us to work reliably.  The problem is that “enough” is a very thin line and a hard one to recognize, because a) we have no cultural standard for it (indeed, we have lots of cultural standards that say it doesn’t exist), and b) we ourselves perceive it as always receding, like the horizon.

As soon as we have enough to eat and enough to keep warm and healthy, we want a nicer car.  Then a bigger kitchen.  Then private school for the kids.  Then a little cabin somewhere on a lake, because hey, our friends have one.  Some days it’s hard to remember how fortunate we are because our cultural methodology for happiness involves training our eyes on the next thing we don’t have.  Happiness isn’t something we HAVE, it’s something we pursue.  Like hounds, panting, barking, giving chase.

You could argue the same basic truths apply to the problem of time.  We have no time because we’re rushing to get everything done: meet a deadline, make the meeting, get the kids to school, run the errands.  And when we DO have time, we don’t know how to deal with the time itself OR with the fact of having it.  We figure having time means we should be doing something (and Facebook and Pinterest feel like we’re doing something, right?), and/or the fact that we actually have time means there’s something we aren’t doing, something we should have done.  And this isn’t even counting the many professional cultures where you would never dare admit that you weren’t incredibly busy, where busy is the measure of your worth.  Sigh.  It’s quite a burden we choose to haul.

But it’s also clear that many of the solutions to our many problems involve, at bottom, more time.  Organizational culture is about time together; community is about time together; all forms of education are about time together and alone; overcoming fear takes time; developing creative solutions takes time; doing all the work that needs to be done to keep our systems running takes time. Answers to poverty are in many ways rooted in time: to grow things together, to care for one another’s needs, to build relationships that help us teach and learn and share.  The impetus behind the industrial revolution was about time, a fact we conveniently forget: the goal was not to “save” time by replacing people with machines so that more of us could live in poverty and/or do more menial work for less money; the goal was to save time so that we could spend it with our families, our communities, our churches.  Imagine that instead of a small group of overworked wealthy people and masses of unemployed, we had most folks working three days a week, or every morning, or whatever the arrangement.  With the necessarily reconfigured salaries, we could actually have our cake and eat it too: rewarding careers AND a life, albeit a less monetarily-driven one.  We could play in a band. Go to soccer practice, or watch your kid’s games.  Volunteer.  Build things.

Right now, most of us either don’t have time or we’re ashamed of having it.  That’s no way to live.

I’ve struggled for a long time to come to terms with my own life choices — leaving a hectic and important full-time career for mostly mommying with part-time consulting and teaching.  I made my choices because everything else felt wrong, but that’s not to say that this felt right.  It’s taken me a long time to see that it doesn’t “feel right” for two reasons: 1. Because it IS right, for me, and I find it very hard to accept and choose to live in that kind of basic happiness; and 2. because it affords me so much time.  I have 2.5 days a week with both my sweet boys and 2.5 days a week for my writing, board work, consulting, teaching, creative endeavors, and household management.  It’s a thing of beauty, and four years in, I’m just starting to be able to describe it to others with joy and pride instead of bashfulness and self-justification.  The money part is hard, I grant (almost as hard as the gendered nature of relying on my husband’s income and insurance) but I have faith I’ll be able to bring in more when more is necessary, and meanwhile the tightness encourages lifestyles I love (mostly): thrifting, cooking, growing, eating largely vegetarian, and DIY for whatever we can.  (Talk to me in another six months when my fifteen-year-old station wagon dies, and you’ll hear another story…)

This newfound appreciation of the life I’ve chosen has led to some other useful realizations: time is precious and it is mercurial.  We imagine we can chop it up into segments (this bit for exercise, that bit for meetings), but it messes with us.  The twenty minutes on the treadmill take FOREVER (unless you have a good book and then it’s not long enough); the meeting can spend an hour in a bad twelve minutes and then fly through the next forty-eight. The gift, I find, is that time stretches when we let it, and then all kinds of life can step in and pull up a seat.

At a recent board meeting, some of us were five or ten minutes early; most folks were on time; one key leader was fifteen minutes late.  For two folks carrying great tension, the wait was visibly painful.  For those of us who always regret not having time to catch up with others, it was (I hesitate to say it) something of a gift.  We CHATTED.  About jewelry, and clothing swaps, and how we love it when an object we’ve cared for but no longer need finds a new home.  About grandchildren and winter and the sudden discovery of a loved-one’s need for heart surgery.  Suddenly we were whole people around the table, bringing all our gifts and selfness, all because we had a stray fifteen minutes put to good use.

I’m rereading Wendell Berry’s beautiful novel Jayber Crow (if you haven’t read it, do), which is all about time.  I mean, it’s ostensibly about a young man’s journey to find home and build community, but that of course means it’s about time.  He’s a reader and a wanderer and a listener.  His sense of the world comes from being out in it, without rush or agenda, with instead a deep curiosity and an openness to what is.  Never mind that the voice of the novel feels as if you’re sitting at your beloved grandfather’s feet near the fireplace on a cold evening; everything about it evokes a time when we had time.  Men sit in the old closed-up town store playing an endless game of gin runny to while away the winter hours during the war.  Jayber himself, the town barber, recognizes that his shop is as much for loafing and talking as it is for the commerce of haircuts and shaves.  The land itself, through flood and storm and gentle new growth, has needs that the good farmers seek to hear and to meet, not only through work but through slow walks around their properties and long conversations with neighbors.

The writers I love, the PEOPLE I love, are those who honor time.  They stretch it out like taffy with stories and music, meditation, board games, nature walks, floating in lakes, observing birds in flight and at rest.  They unfold it like a warm blanket over anyone in their presence, with careful questions and unhurried listening.  They understand how much they don’t understand, and they are willing to listen, to learn, or simply to be present.  These are my chosen ways, now that I can see they are choices.  They fill me with hope.

 

On physical therapy as therapy.

This is kind of a theme of mine, so forgive me if you’ve heard this one before.  But working out today I had the chance to chat with a friend who is also a physical therapist at the office I go to (it’s a “continuing fitness” rehab thing for those of us who are pushing beyond PT per se but still need support from time to time — brilliant, I say).  So anyway, there we are, and I’m asking about whether it’s best to use a foam roller to iron out difficult muscles before or after working out.  John, my friend the PT, says at first that you should do it afterward.  Then he thinks some more and says that there’d be no argument against doing it before, especially for someone like me, where the tensest muscle groups tend to be the ones we’re trying to strengthen.  And for me, that statement causes a total Lucy Van Pelt moment:

“That’s it!” I holler (internally, lest people think me strange).  I want to strengthen what’s all balled up (my writing, my consulting, my willingness to be out there in the world), and instead of working on the simple, feel-good steps along the way (which are, incidentally, totally vital), I beat myself up for not being there yet.

Once again, pt offers a perfect metaphor for my life.  You can’t properly strengthen muscles that are foreshortened due to tension — they are in the wrong places, using bad habits, and you have to guide them into better paths before they can really do what they are designed to do.

I realize that this may mean I need to stop watching Grey’s Anatomy, but only if I want to take my own medicine.  Which I may not.  But here’s the thing: I’m a writer. I’m a reader and a teacher and a thinker and a critic and an organizer and a grower and a maker and a friend and a mother.  Of those things I am meant to do, the only ones I GET to do are the ones I HAVE to do.  I parent because I have kids and they rock the house.  I read what I have signed up to teach and I teach when I get the opportunity because it’s the best way I know to make a buck. I read and critique what I need to to be useful on the board I’ve committed to serve; I grow in the summer because it’s cheaper than buying food; I make things I’ve promised to make, and I don’t often promise any more.  I am a friend when I can squeeze in a phone call without kids around (can ANYTHING make them whine and cling faster than seeing me pick up a phone?).  But overall, when I look at my life with clear eyes, I offer this diagnosis:

I am no longer broken; I am not in pain.  But there are many things I long to do, muscles I long to work, that feel like “luxuries.”  Just like using the foam roller feels like a luxury.  If it feels good, this particular logic goes, it must not be very important.  Pain is the indicator that something is broken, and if we can limp along without much pain, well then, we are fine.  Today, I think: fine is not good enough.

Today I want to sort feeling comfortable from feeling alive; feeling pain from feeling vulnerable.  Because vulnerability, discomfort, awakeness when we’d rather be asleep, are the things that make us whole.  They are that deep and welcome ache when you hit the specific muscle that needs release.  They give us room to live, to thrive, to explore, to develop.

Here’s a handy reference tool for sorting what is crucial and what is luxury.  For me, now, today.  Feel free to make your own.

Warm delicious snuggles with loved ones: crucial.  (Ezra staggered into our room at 6:10 with his new dinosaur book, flipping on the light and climbing into bed between us, only to discover later, I think, that he was not in fact really awake at the time.)

Stretching, foam roller, or other forms of muscle relaxation: crucial.  (Just because it feels good does not mean it’s non-essential.  It is hard work for me to remember that.)

Strength-training, in body and spirit (weight-lifting; meditation): crucial.

Long delicious shower after a workout: crucial for spirit; luxury in terms of time.

Writing up creative ideas for community projects and being willing to share them in their draft stage: crucial.  Also, luxury, because more time would make for better work…but what great practice at letting something take shape among people rather than just in my own mind!

Taking a nap: probably a luxury today, since I got a good seven hours last night.  But sleep: crucial.

Eating well and making good food for my family: crucial AND a luxury.  I have a friend doing the hard work of cooking in advance and freezing whole meals…that’s hard work that makes sense.  But I’m not there yet.  I’m here.

Exploring new ideas through reading and writing: crucial.  Crucial, I say.

Watching tv for downtime during lunch…well, I’m allowed a little luxury, right?

On doing one thing at a time.

Like many of you, I struggle to be all things to all people.  Rather, I’ve given up EXPLICITLY trying to do that, because I’m too smart to keep at the impossible (sometimes), but I’m not smart enough, it seems to give it up entirely.  I still worry, when I’m parenting, that I’m not bringing in money.  When I’m bringing in money, I worry that it’s not building a career.  When I’m having conversations about building a career, I’m worry about the experience my kids are having in daycare and wondering what I should give up on in order to be more present somewhere, sometime.

But the bottom line is, we have to choose.  Most of us, as the self-help books point out, choose by default: we limp along in agony until eventually we fall on one side of the path or the other.  It’s unpleasant but surely saves on decision-making.  I am rather a master of this skill.  Case in point: a pretty fantastic job appeared recently at an institution near me, and I sweated for a week over whether or not to apply.  But every time I turn the decision over again, filling the wee hours with my remorse and trepidation, I arrive at the same place. I am not ready to go back to full-time work yet.  I want to spend more time in my children’s lives.  Other people may not; I may not eventually; but right now, I would feel sad and cheated and resentful if I could not spend these two-and-a-half weekdays with my boys.  So I will honor that and choose not to apply for full-time work.

The hard part, of course, is less making the choice and more living with it.  I have always believed in a keep-all-doors-open policy, which makes perfect sense if you are not sure where you want to go.  And so I mistrust my own clarity when I do have it.  But enough sleepless nights, going around the same circles, and even I come to see that my conclusions are always the same.  So the math leads me to believe what the soul has been trying to say all along.

This macro-dynamic of too-many-things shows up everywhere, of course.  In college, I changed majors four times, the last time in the middle of my junior year (bad idea, in case you wondered).  When designing courses, some people think about what reading and assignments to include; I have to think about what to leave out, because there’s SO MUCH great stuff to work with.  Last month I purchased no fewer than eight sample cans of paint in order to decide what color to paint the kitchen (and please note: they were all shades of white.  The kitchen is white).  My any.do app which I use to manage to-do lists typically includes eight or ten things under “today” and a similar number under “tomorrow”; never mind that any ONE of these things might be (was, in fact, today) enormous: making curtains for a friend.  (FYI, that project involves cutting and sewing ten panels of various lengths, hemming on all sides and creating top pockets for the tension rods she will use.  The fabric is a gauzy linen; the sewing machine is a temperamental thing with a bad attitude about tension.)  What special form of self-flagellation leads me to put all these items on a single day?  I realize it’s mostly a commitment to keeping the doors open, in case circumstances direct me to one or another of these things, they are all right there for the doing.  And on an average day, I probably do cross off three or four things.  But…three or four out of eight is kind of depressing.  I want to feel more efficient than that.  I want good reasons to tell some of these nagging voices to pipe down.

So as part of my commitment to Peace in All Things (a mother of two under four: bwahahaha), I decided today that come hell or high water, I would achieve SOMETHING.  I was not going to spend my available time on Pinterest and Facebook, planning and pining.  I was going to find my way into that beautiful, soul-soothing creative space and emerge without having done everything but having made something.  Because that has to be enough, and I have to practice it.  And so I did.  Four panels only, but that’s something for an afternoon.  Small hands may have helpfully pushed each pin all the way into the pincushion (“I like the colors, Mama!”), and even smaller hands may have spent quality time measuring my chair repeatedly (“My measure tape!  I measure for you!”), but I was able to be and do together.  This feels like spiritual practice.  It feels like good work, one thing at a time.

On the making of goodness.

It sounds rather grandiose, now that I write it down, but I’ve been trying lately to imagine how it is that we make space for making goodness.

For making good things, for allowing basic goodness to creep into whatever it is we are making anyway.

Specific examples include the lamb-leek-barley soup I made last week and cannot get over; the upcycled wool scarf I made Len for Christmas that both of us quite adore; the hour spent in the kitchen with both boys this morning as we explored  spontaneously the acoustic properties of an old vacuum pipe and a cardboard wrapping-paper tube.  In every case, there was the magic of serendipity (one can never properly estimate the right amount of leek, am I right?); the hard work of preparation (finding the best way to set the tension for the walking foot and cleaning out all the felted wool lint repeatedly); the challenge of setting down expectations and just showing up to what’s present (a two-year-old’s insistence on toting around a long ShopVac tube and helpfully “vacuuming” freshly painted walls while hollering seemed like a good opportunity for redirection).

It strikes me now that this post would do well to include the soup recipe (inspired by this), the scarf tutorial, and the fun description of sound games to play with toddlers…and perhaps it shall.  Another night.  For now, let it be enough for me to share my gratitude for delicious local foods, for friends with a superior grasp of sewing machine workings, for fun and interesting kids who are malleable enough to move with me sometimes.  Let it be enough to remember that making things is often better than not making things; that flailing wildly is really just a natural part of the creative process; that resilience in the face of failure is a whole lot better than being so safe you never get to fail.  And once in a while, you get to feel the good in the product, even, and not just the process.  Those are good days.  And the rest just keep you humble, right?

On relearning the important parts.

It’s exhausting to keep living this nonlinear life, with its ups and downs, its difficult lessons, its outrageous joys.  You learn something, then forget it, then spend years learning it again.  I much prefer more academic models of learning, where we learn something, check it off as “learned,” and move on.  (It doesn’t really WORK that way, but the shared illusion is so pleasant.)

Alas.  Here we are. And so this holiday season totally ate me alive, and I was not present or thoughtful or connected.  Indeed, I was barely civil.  I spent much of my time holed up waiting for something loving or memorable or fun to happen…and as you might guess, those things don’t typically come looking for you.  You have to generate them, and generative was about the last thing I was.

But it’s a new year now, and another new beginning.  I will write again.  (See?  See?  I AM writing.)  I will read more.  I will ask better questions of my friends and family and I will work harder to remember the answers.  These are not resolutions, because those are part of the whole linear mapping of the world that frankly doesn’t work for me.  But if I can hold to these simple intentions, I will be grateful: to show more often the love I feel; to use more often the gifts I cultivate; to move more often beyond a place of comfort.  To hold myself open to the pleasure and the pain.  To be both the adult and the child I am.  To cherish, savor,  create, let go.  Most of all, to remember that ass-on-couch is a default mode rather than a true rest, and that restoration often looks like work.

Thanks for reading, friends.  I hope to hear from all of you as your new year’s journey unfolds.