On wading in: Day 30.

This is the last post of my September commitment, an exploration of a month-long journey to “wade in” to the currents and eddies of my life.  It’s hard, producing something every day that you’re not plain embarrassed to post; it’s hard finding meaningful ways to look at your life when you’re tired and scattered and worn down.  But like most writers, I find regular practice does in fact support more and better writing; like most mindfulness practitioners, I find regular commitment does in fact sustain clearer vision and deeper breathing.  No news here.

I thought I’d like to sift back through the posts of this month and pull together their various tools or insights, the images I liked the best, the ideas you seemed to like the best.  But then I realized that that would feel like more dodging — the kind of subtle, artful dodging I’ve come to understand as my most pernicious habit.  I’d do it under the guise of critical review, or summative reflection, or some other noble impulse, when it’s also really a way for me to avoid saying anything new.

So here are some things that have been sticking with me, in the ways that my “wading” approach to life encourages:

Our favorite farmer at the market comes from Somalia and spent years in the Dadaab refugee camp before coming here.  She participates in the market through a program called Fresh Start (formerly the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project), which engages new Mainers who used to farm back home in farming here, offering land and lessons in climate and crops.  Every week after we buy what we need, she sneaks around from behind her stall and tucks into our bag, or hands to one of our small boys, something extra: a pepper, a head of broccoli, a delicata squash.  It is a gesture so kind and familiar that every week it breaks my heart open a little.  And I want to ask her — someday I will — if during those brutal years of flight and transition, and even now in the difficult journey of her life, if she hoped to feed a family like mine.  Because she feeds us.  She is our farmer and she gives us nourishment.  I love her strength and power and generosity, and I am grateful for it, for her, for the funders and organizers and smart people who made it possible for someone kicked off her own patch of earth to nourish others from a new one.

Also, just today: my boys and I raked the driveway leaves (drier than the fog-ridden lawn-leaves) into a big pile and jumped and tossed and buried each other in the heap for a lovely warm half-hour.  Then Ezra wandered up the driveway a bit to gather a new handful and began to scream.  I turned toward him, running already, as he bent over, batting at his face and clothes and screaming, screaming, screaming.  Just a few weeks before, he’d noticed a yellow-jacket hive in the maple over the driveway, but it had clearly been there all summer and we had never had any problems, so we let it be, hoping for an early frost.  But all of a sudden, they swooped in on this tiny man, stinging him four times on the face and neck and twice on the hand.  One sting, on his eyebrow, actually drew blood.  He was sobbing and shaking in full-blown panic — of course!  — as I batted away the remaining bees and hauled him down the driveway toward safety.  It took nearly an hour for the tremors to subside completely, and an hour more for him to externalize enough to look out the window and explain that those yellow-jackets were the ones that had stung him.  His left eye is still swollen shut, but he’s back in the saddle now, and I can’t help but marvel at the resilience of his being.  A massive, painful assault, out of nowhere, in the middle of a joyful morning’s play, and he can squint his way back to a recognition that maybe they thought he was a danger to their nest.  I am astonished all over again at the courage of a human who hasn’t yet lived for four years on this earth.  (Or maybe, I suppose, that’s the ticket.)

As we leave September now and head into October, things pick up speed: our fifteenth anniversary; many, many family birthdays; various programs and projects I’m working on will move ahead more quickly.  But I want to carry this month of transition, of intention, of courage and hope, with me into the rest; I want to remember that time is both more finite and more elastic than I pretend; I want to choose more often the life-giving activities that make more of me and of us.  I want to develop my capacity to know what I’m avoiding and to look at it in clear light; I want to dive in more deeply where and when I can.  (There, I should add, is my one pleasure at releasing this commitment to daily posting: some of these ideas need longer exploration and more research, and there’s been no time on this schedule.  But soon, soon.)  Thanks for reading along on these daily posts!  I look forward to hearing from you as it all keeps unfolding.

On wading in: Day 26. Wading out.

I’ve decided that my capacity to control my relationship to the interwebs is waning.  I mean, the WILL is still there, as are the specific forms of revulsion that keep me out of most of it.  But apparently something has damaged my ability to wade back out of the mire that is my email-facebook-pinterest-wordpress-cool-articles-someone-posted world.

I’m a really minimal tech-user, by which I mean that I’m a strongly utilitarian tech-user. I like to communicate; work; keep up with friends; read interesting stories; find new recipes and craft/DIY projects.  I rarely get sucked into shopping; I hardly ever watch a video (except for on Netflix, which is a whole other beast and entirely under control).  But even my mighty commitment to mindfulness can’t seem to turn back ON the energy that gets cut off when I head into this little loop of consumption.

Strategy goes; creativity goes; higher-order processing goes.  The reflex action (moving to whatever screen I’m not currently on) kicks in as soon as the self-loathing alerts me that I’m stuck.  “Oh, okay.  I’ll just see if I have new email and then I’ll shut this thing and go do some work.”  Yah.

The real problem is not even the time drain.  It’s the loss of meaningful initiative and mental bandwidth.  Today, for example, walking home across a  beautiful college’s campus from lunch with a friend, I was filled with the joy of sunshine and the sense of productive possibility that a good walk and a good friend can provide.  I noted the cormorant drying its bat-wings above the water in which it lay; I saw the raggedy juvenile male mallard with his head-feathers not fully in, and I thought to myself, Adolescence is a bitch. I felt the flow of good ideas within me: scraping and painting the old iron bench; working up the proposal for the new book project; calling an old friend for a conversation about work and life.  But I get home, “check my email real quick,” and suddenly it’s 20 minutes later and I have no idea what I’m doing.

Sad but true.

Sometimes I want a sabbatical from technology, but more often I just want to reclaim the purpose of my work with it.  Perhaps post-it notes on my screen to remind me of my goals?  Perhaps giving myself permission to curl up on the couch with a novel, which is really what I seem to be avoiding most of the time?  Perhaps zen-ish questions like that on my new desk-side bulletin board (what are you avoiding?  What would fill you with joy right now?  Who do you want to connect with?)?  Maybe I’ll try them all.

Did I mention my new productivity strategy?  To preserve my freedom of choice in field of work, I’m using an old trick in a new place: distinct lists for ongoing work; new work; house work; fun/fulfillment.  My spiffy new/crappy old bulletin board will store the lists in plain sight — or maybe inside pretty cards? — so that I can have them present where I DON’T NEED TECHNOLOGY TO FIND THEM.  That’s a cruel sideline to the whole e-document system…you get in to do work and find yourself lost in the preparation for working.  Sigh.

So yes, wading in is what we’re about here, but also wading out — freedom, fluidity, and finicky discernment about what to do next.  Sometimes the next best move is to sit still with your face turned toward the sun.  But here on my computer I’ll never know, will I?

On wading in: Day 25. The finite resources of attention.

This morning Ezra awoke a cheerful boy.  We watched the birds at his window feeder for a little bit; he used the potty; we headed downstairs.  Somewhere along the way, presumably in the bathroom, he remembered a set of old squirting tub toys he used to have, which were thrown away when they got all mildewy inside.  Which happened maybe 6 or eight months ago.  He spent the next hour in full-throated grief at their loss.

This is a kid who can normally marshall all kinds of resources to solve problems, especially when he knows the thing he wants is available at a store.  (And he knows these are available at a store because he’s seen them and asked for them before.)  But his sadness was so all-encompassing and his attention so focused on retrieving the lost toys (“Mama, can we ask the recycling man?  Maybe he knows where they are…”) that he could not think about replacement as an option.

Recent research into the effects of narrow “bandwidth” on decision-making is showing us that attention really is more finite than we’d like to believe.  Multi-tasking aside, the presence of stress taxes our attention and leads us to make bad decisions.

In a NYTimes article, one of the authors of an important new book discusses this phenomenon, making (unfortunate) comparisons between dieting and poverty.  His basic point seems entirely useful: the stressors restrict our available bandwidth, leading us to make poor choices.  He doesn’t seem to address adequately the difference between self-imposed choices like dieting and systemic traps like poverty, which I find problematic, but the bottom line phenomenon, he’s saying, is the same.

In related news, I’m preparing with a group of friends to throw a baby shower for another friend, and we’re planning to sing a song.  So at breakfast this morning I’m teaching the kids Elizabeth Mitchell’s version of “Three Little Birds” (of Bob Marley fame), and it occurs to us that there may be serious emotional, psychological, and perhaps, we now suspect, even financial value to being told in a sing-song melody that “every little thing is gonna be all right.”  It’s what we most need to believe; it’s what we most easily forget through grief or loss or stress or pain.  We become like Ezra, wailing at the top of our lungs, “I want my old mildewy tub toys!!” when in fact there might be something else we want more: comfort, togetherness, entertainment, reassurance.  I held him and rocked him until we could gather the energy to sing again.

On wading in: Day 17. The particulars.

As I sat last night with the smell of my son’s hands (grapes, tomatoes, basil from our farewell-to-the-garden harvest) and the image of a Somali immigrant high schooler carefully blowing large, perfect bubbles and laughing with joy as my three-year-old chased them down, I realized that these were my touchstones for the day.  

I need these touchstones; I need specific memories and moments to ground me in the world.  Community does that for me, ideally, through its webs of friendship, caregiving, mutual tedium, shared challenge.  But lacking that, I’m needing to build some of these pieces for myself. 

One of the ways I’m doing that is through my work with the Maine Humanities Council, especially this new series I’m creating on the agrarian novel in the USA.  The more I read of these glorious novels and the insightful criticism related to them, the more caught up I am in questions of nostalgia, utopianism, political structures, and illustrative details.  The difference between a polemic and a novel, after all, is largely about the level of detail in plot, character, setting.  The particulars are what pull us in and what make a difference, and those of us who tend to view the world from a distance sometimes have a hard time remembering that.  What’s beautiful about agrarian novels in particular is the synchronicity between what they advocate (attention; local knowledge; reverence for beauty and for nature) and what they do (demonstrate each of those principles in their own process and language and plot).  It’s a harmony that’s well worth seeking in the other fields of our lives.

Some particulars of today: at the Bread Shack, while I waited for my car to get fixed down the street, I had a cup of cocoa.  When it came, in a perfect round white cup with a dollop of chocolate-sprinkled whipped cream on top, Dara (owner and friend) asked the server to bring a spoon.  A demitasse, specifically.  It needs it, she said.  It’s just crying out for it.  And she was right.

At bedtime, Ezra wanted to read Brown Bear again, because we’ve finally (after a year or two) finished putting up the remainder of the wall decals from his Brown Bear set.  (He had been missing the aquatic creatures: the yellow duck, goldfish, and green frog, on account of us having no body of water to put them near/in.  They now occupy wall space near a picture of a duck pond.  It’s all out of proportion, but Ezra could not be more thrilled with the whole thing.)  So a reading of Brown Bear involves him reading to us and pointing energetically to each creature in its place on the four walls of his room.  His face is full of light as he searches and finds, over and over, the brown bear climbing in a tree; the red bird soaring toward a bird house; the yellow duck waddling toward the pond…and on and on.  “My friends,” he calls them.  “My friends are so happy to be all together.”