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.

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One comment on “On doing one thing at a time.

  1. This is the first post I’ve read on your blog and am now a follower (or soon to be if I can get to that step after doing three other things beforehand). I enjoyed reading the post because I’m the exact same way – not sure if we are all cut from the same cloth or not, but what you describe is something that a lot of us do-ers seem to go through.

    I’ve decided that this is the most apt description – that we are do-ers. We need things to do, we have things to do and even when we don’t, we’re looking for things to do. My father is the same way in many respects and I’ve watched as retirement has whittled him down to boredom as a result of “nothing to do”. Why is that important in this comment? I think that people like us are great so long as there are lots of things to do and accomplish. But, the day will come when the kids are gone, the career is over (if it even started) and the house is in good order because there are no more little rugrats running around to destroy it! We need a hobby. It grounds people like us. It’s hard for us to find a hobby because a) we have too many things to do to focus on one thing and b) it seems so trivial when there is SO MUCH TO DO. It always comes back to this, doesn’t it.

    I can not and will not comment about your choice to work or not. My choice has been to stay with the kids (I’m a stay-at-home dad) because I know I only have this one opportunity to do that. Jobs in academia will be there when I’m fifty just as they are now. If I don’t get hired because I’m too old by that point then I guess I’ll find something else to do. Besides, I may be a bit different by that time and won’t feel as dedicated to advising or teaching young whipper snappers anyway.

    I’m rambling now, but just wanted to say that I enjoyed your post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and letting me know that I’m not alone in this regard.

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