On getting off the couch (or not).

I have this strange rhythm to my life, with two days a week of daycare and all my “work” crammed into those two days.  I say this not to discount the important work of homemaking and childrearing and keeping our lives moving ahead that fill all the rest of my days; I say it because I’m guessing lots of other people struggle to differentiate between paid (or pay-able) work and the other critical unpaid occupations of our lives.

Anyway, I jam these childcare days FULL of expectations.  I schedule appointments and meetings and regular commitments; I plan major writing initiatives; I intend to do research and also tackle the big household projects I can’t take care of with kids around.  But then I end up overwhelmed.  My task management app, Any.Do, invites me DAILY to “manage my to-do’s.”  Clearly it thinks I’m overwhelmed, too.

Today, for example, I left the house shortly after 7 am to take Ezra to a specialist appointment in Portland.  An hour down, fifteen minutes with the doc, and an hour back.  I make good use of the time singing endless rounds of ABCs and “Three Little Birds” with Ezra, so that feels fulfilling, at least.  And then I go straight to the gym after dropping him at daycare.  (Let me stop right here to say that I’ve contemplated saving time by skipping the gym, but apparently I have the good fortune of a crappy back that causes pain if I skip my lifting regimen for more than three days, so I guess I’ll run with that.  But don’t mistake this exercise commitment for either Virtue or Vanity.  It’s simple self-preservation.)  Anyway, I’m home, dripping with sweat, by 10:30, and I’m so starving that I have to eat right away rather than shower.  So then I’m disgusting but dry, and I figure I’ll Get Things Done before I shower, and that lands me on the couch with the computer, and from there on out, my friends, it’s game over.  I’ve cleaned out my inbox; followed up on old business; drafted letters of recommendation for former students (in my head).  I’ve played innumerable games of Bubble as I strategize my next move, and I’ve strongly considered showering.  And napping.  And Doing things.  But to consider, alas, is not to do.  And when I get this tired, there’s a whole phenomenon of not-caring that kicks in.  I need to mobilize to CARE and then I’ll do things.  Or I can just get really hard-nosed about it all and force myself to do things, assuming the caring will follow…the arranged-marriage version of life-planning.  Huh.

And there, you see, is the rub.  It’s a considering kind of day, not a caring kind of day.  I want to loaf about.  I want to read novels and watch bad tv and sip cocoa.  Is that so wrong?  Am I allowed to just DO that?  It feels like no, not with the board meeting tonight that I need to present at, the upcoming discussion group I need to plan and write an email to, the three novels by my bedside I need to finish before I can finalize the discussion group work.  Not to mention the excellent contacts I need to get back to regarding the Possibility of Paid Work.  Sigh.  Perhaps I should organize my day into segments: gym; computer; existing work; board work; potential work; house/yard work.  Maybe that would get me off the couch.

Or not.

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 21. Presence/presents.

It’s the oldest pun in the world, but it’s STILL TRUE.  Being present yields amazing presents.  Giving ourselves the gift of focusing on just one thing, being right there with it, is hard but necessary if we want to be part of the magic.  Examples:

At the Common Ground Fair yesterday, a speaker was working with a huge and restless horse, an absolute beauty of a beast who apparently has great nervousness.  The speaker told how he came to get this horse after others gave up on it, and he was only able to work with it when he could focus himself entirely on the horse.  Any lapse, any straying, any half-assed efforts the horse could sense immediately and it would freeze up and refuse to cooperate.  The owner had been able to work well with the horse and he told how it was even useful for him — though hard — to need to undertake this exercise.  “How well he works with me,” the owner said, ” is in direct relationship to how completely focused I can be on him.”

My weekends are often full of lists and planning, but my favorite days are the ones when I am lost enough to not even HAVE a list.  Those days I float from place to place and simply respond to where I am, open to what soothes me or irks me or wants to change.  By being present with the space around me, I can see with new immediacy what I should be doing in the moment.  And the results surprise me: the spice rack (a strange arrangement of small stacked painted crates bolted to the wall) got a much-needed cleaning and new contact paper; the space alongside the oven got cleaned and de-cluttered; mulch got laid; sweet woodruff got transplanted; a Barrington Belle peony got dug in; a few beds got weeded or fall-cleaned; potatoes got dug; carrots got pulled.  Even the strawberry bed, which has been a short forest of self-sown feverfew all summer, got a thorough weeding — just the kind of chore I will work hard to avoid if it’s on a list, but when it just calls to me, well, I can answer.

The most glowing moment in a satisfying day (did I mention we started with zucchini/banana/flaxseed muffins and finished with homemade potato-leek soup?) came as I was rounding the last corner in the strawberry bed, reeking of feverfew and starting to get sore.  Len was corralling the boys to go inside, and they wanted to give me a hug first, so they ran to me, barefoot and glowing in the early fall late afternoon.  One boy in each arm; one sweet neck against each cheek.  So much, so much.  How could there be more?

On wading in: Day 7. Gettin’ it done.

I am a big list-maker.  But as we’ve discussed before, I may not be proficient in the most USEFUL kinds of list-making: the kind that actually spell out your tasks for the day.  Today, in typical over-achiever fashion, my list said this:

Pressure washer (code for: rent one; use it on all external surfaces of the house; borrow a ladder from somewhere to get up high).

Wash windows (code for: all of them.  Inside and out.  We have three floors with TONS of windows).

Edge  beds (we have nearly three-quarters of an acre, and much of it is landscaped with perennial beds…all of which need edging.  NEW edging.  Not clean-up edging).

Mulch beds (see above).

There was something else on it, but I forget what.  Because this list embodies what should be, oh, three or four days worth of work.

But you know what?  Turns out that when you stop worrying about how ridiculously over-ambitious the list is and just DO things, things get done.  It’s startling.

I suppose this is kin to being in the moment…just embracing the work before us without trying to strategize a better way or bundle chores for greater efficiency.  We just DID it.  And loved it.  And we’re amazed by how beautiful the house looks now.

There’s a subtext here about stewardship…one of my chronic self-disappointments is not taking good enough care of the wonderful things I have.  (And Len’s laid-back attitude doesn’t always help, if you see what I mean.)  But it seems that actually DOING things is far easier and less stressful than worrying about getting it done.  (And of course we didn’t do it ALL, but we did a great deal and it feels delicious.)  Who knew?

(I know.  You did.  Whatever, smarty-smarterson.)

Even better was that our post-cleaning, post-mulching, post-mowing trip to the garden for kale for dinner involved a little spell of flower-picking, too, and Ezra wanted to carry them all into the house.  He knows how to take care of their tender stems, he says.  And then we made three bouquets which are gorgeous, and then Ezra said we had to have a Celebration at dinner.  Because of the flowers.  To celebrate the flowers.  So we did.  My heart is smiling all the way down to my toes.

On wading in: Day 5. Quieting the critic.

The problem with having an active, well-educated brain is that you tend to use it more often than you need to.  You tend to think of it as a problem-solver…of ALL problems.  But in my reality, that brain causes a lot of problems, too, and I need to be careful how I use it.  (And when.  Mindfulness practice mostly happens at 4 am here at my house.)

Example: yesterday’s hopes for “going under.”  I enjoyed the day, but I wouldn’t describe it as immersive.  I stepped from stone to stone across the river rather than dive right in.  Which is fine.  I mean, I’d like to have accomplished more, but it was fine then, and it’s fine now.  And that fine-ness, that relaxation with how I’ve been doing, is what enables me to keep moving forward. (And trust me, this is an atypical response.  I must be growing up or something.)

Here’s a more typical pattern (see if you recognize any of this!):

1. Make a vast and impressive list of really critical things to take care of;

2. Spend most of the available time alternately re-organizing the list and eating chocolate on the couch;

3. Accomplish one important thing off the list and get halfway into another;

4. Spend the next three days in an analytical downward spiral over why I never get anything done.

My physical therapist is trying to convince me to use a lacrosse ball to release trigger points in my back.  You stand with your back against a wall with the ball between you and the wall and you roll around, leaning on the ball.  It’s transformative.  It’s painful.  It’s illuminating.  And, apparently, it’s necessary, because you can’t really strengthen muscles that are all tied up in knots.

See where I’m going with this?  A relaxed, forgiving attitude toward failure turns out to be not only not a problem — it’s a positive solution.  That’s right.

And if you get your head around that before I do, let me know.  I’m still working on it.  But I realize it’s true, my BODY knows it’s true, even though (because?) it gravitates against most of the self-evident “truths” we get taught: that lists are made so we can check things off; that our job is to check off as many of them as we can; that discipline is next to godliness (or something); that NOT checking things off constitutes failure; that failure is bad.

Today, instead, I’ll try these on as truths:

1. Lists are made to help us see clearly our commitments and desires.  It’s a vision exercise as well a form of task management.  I need to know which is which.

2. Our job is to live wholly and well, fulfilling our many commitments and desires (listed or unlisted) over time, and that may mean RESTING.

3. Discipline is useful and necessary and it is also a skill we practice and, at times, eschew.  We get to be the deciders.  And we can TRUST ourselves, trust our desires and whims.   Discipline alone is only one avenue toward achievement.

4. A revolving to-do list may indicate failure — but of which kind?  The delicious kind that suggests we had much, much better things to do, which have filled us with glee?  The painful kind that indicates we had to spend our time doing things not on the list (doctor’s visits, soothing troubled children, plumbing)?  The mundane kind that tells us we really don’t WANT to be doing the things on the list, and maybe we’d do well to delegate or let go?  The terrifying kind that might tell us the list is not specific enough, since we’re totally paralyzed and overwhelmed?  The exhilarating kind that means we’re onto something big here and a list will never contain it?

5. Failure is not bad.  It means we’re learning something.

“SEE?” my inner critic gloats.  “You USED me for this, and look how much it helped!”

“Yes,” I say.  “Thank you. Now go lie down.”