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.)

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On wading in: Day 28. The competing priorities.

I used to be a totally type A person because that’s how I made things work for me.  And they DID work.  Really well.  Except for a whole bunch of things I didn’t really understand well, like relationships and trust and forgiveness.

As those got more important, or my failures in those departments grew more conspicuous and problematic, I changed.  It was a pretty big pendulum swing.  The main problem then became that my efforts to be “relaxed” and to let life do its thing meant that I wasn’t honoring my basic desire for structure, planning, and organization.

So I’ve been working these last few years on learning how to bring the right set of tools to the right task.  But it’s really hard because these approaches seem far more all-encompassing than just tool-boxes.  It seems like the transition from structured and planful to present-in-the-moment requires time and energy and attention that I’m not yet in the habit of cultivating.

Today is a good example.  It was a gorgeous day, a break-the-bank golden, bottomless blue day, enhanced by the crisp breeze and hot sunshine and occasional drift of leaves to the grass.  I awoke with seven hundred plans (yes, at 4 am): scrape and paint the exterior windows that need it; ditto for the old bench I want to repaint; pot up the cuttings of lemon basil that have rooted; mulch and edge garden beds; transplant the cedars, elderberries, and maybe even cherry trees that have been lounging in the “nursery bed” for years.  There were Ambitions.  But entering Ezra’s room this morning, in the dark, after he called out for me, I had that wonderful sense of Christmas.  Here is this sweet, precious gift with all his ideas and behaviors and wants and I get to be with him!  Every person in my house is a stunningly perfect blessing, and sometimes I can actually SEE that and KNOW it.  Today was one such day.  So how does anything else really matter that much?  We made pancakes and smoothies and played outside for a while and then the day got ahold of us, and we ended up doing only one actual Thing. (Well, two, but one was a mandatory grocery-store run, so that doesn’t count.)

I look at this month almost gone and I feel much the same way: where are the plans I had for building my consulting practice?  For finalizing my public humanities discussion series?  For advancing the other ongoing projects?  Nothing has languished, exactly, but nothing is taking on new momentum.  Perhaps that’s not a problem; perhaps it’s not time. But I wish I had more faith in my skill at managing these competing priorities of my life: intentionally shaping and designing it vs mindfully living in it.

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.”

Pinterest as spiritual practice

The Pinterest craze has provided many of us with new ways to kill time.  And I mean, kill it dead.  The unbelievable depth and breadth of resources available present an enormous challenge to those of us with a passion for, well, anything.  Because it’s all on there – the whole world of hobbies, ideas, design, innovation, crafts, houses, book ideas, every possible manifestation of human interest.  It’s easy to start, hard to put down, and even harder to catch up on sleep after your first week.  Which is why all kinds of folks are including Pinterest in their media fasts, their unplugging, their general efforts to return to sane and local living.  (Patti Digh has a great little piece on that here.)

The real challenge, I think, is in moderation, in judicious use of the resources with a discerning eye, so that you a) aren’t constantly on there, and b) you only pin what you want to use, for feeding you in some important way.  (Here, my pastor mother-in-law would smile and say: “As it so often is in our spiritual lives.”)  Indeed, one friend asked (on facebook, amusingly): “does Pinterest provide beauty or value, or does it just give us more information? Because I have enough information.”  I answered yes, beauty and value indeed, because of how it enables us to keep contact (distanced, sorted, organized contact) with information, with good ideas and beautiful, inspirational images.

I am one of those people who struggles to live in the present because I am always trying to bear (“to carry”) in mind too many kinds of information: the location of that recipe I want to cook for dinner; the directions for that fun activity I want to try with my kids tomorrow; the pattern for the hat I will crochet my niece for Christmas; the paint color I saw in someone’s bathroom that I want to try in ours.  And that’s just the domestic sphere!  What of the brilliant “slow money” article I keep losing track of? The book on radical homemaking that offers new ways of imagining barter? The website that’s a useful model for my consulting practice? My head is constantly moving on several levels at once, which is an advantage in terms of getting things done but a distinct disadvantage in the peace-of-mind category.  It took me until a few months into my Pinterest love-affair to realize the enormous gift it offered me: to be here and now without ceding my hold on the future.  It offers us what is essentially a spiritual opportunity, previously available (perhaps) only to those writers and contemplatives who kept and used tiny portable notebooks.  By pinning (in our portable phones, even?) the next great family activity or the last painting that made us gasp, we can store our cherished visions without giving them up; we can live our lives AND remember where and how those visions are; we can revisit them in all their detail and promise, erasing what no longer fits or reorganizing to accommodate new dreams; we can share these visions, when we choose to, with friends; and most of all we can do all this without fear of spending our lives away from center, from the here and now.  We can set down the dream, or pin it up, and not have to live in its shadow for fear of failure or forgetting.  That way we can be here, now, with our lived realities, and still honor the hopes we have for other, better, fuller lives.  Because we do have those hopes, and yet we only fulfill them through living, here and now, rather than dreaming in the ether.

On competence

Those of you who had careers you loved and excelled at and left to raise kids, you’ll know what I mean when I say that I CRAVE a sense of competence.  I used to zip around my world, well-dressed, well-informed, good at what I did.  It gave me (an unduly large) sense of purpose and it helped me feel at home, useful, valued.  Then, well, I had babies.

Now, of course, I’m not well-dressed and I rarely zip anywhere (unless there’s the sound of choking involved, or tiny feet on forbidden stairs).  But more importantly, I’m way outside of my zones of expertise.  Over the months and years, of course, you get good at some things — you learn the tricks to making the baby eat more applesauce, fall asleep faster, laugh more often.  You learn how to wash their hair without getting water in their eyes.  You learn how to draw a little bit, put on puppet shows, and dance with two small people at once.  But mysteries abound, and the failure to solve them is both constitutive of our tasks as parents and, more simply, a persistent pain in the ass.  How best to assist night-weaning?  How to promote potty-training? When to shift naptime?  There are days — like today — where the pre-5-am wake-up is not good for anyone, and breakfast time is generally a whine-fest.

toilet repair detritusFortunately for all of us, today is also a DAY CARE DAY!!  Hah HAH!  I can get something DONE!  Unfortunately, the prime task at hand is fixing the broken toilet.  I realize that kind of sounds like a punch line, and it kind of IS, but here’s the thing: I love this kind of work.  I love it when you can actually see your accomplishment.  (Of course, I hate hate hate the three trips to Home Depot involved, especially because I planned ahead, but who knew the little pre-packaged nut-and-bolt set contains not the necessary THREE, but a useless TWO bolts?)  But there are so many things in our world and our lives that involved delayed gratification, or none at all, that something this concrete is, well, pretty awesome.  Plus, it uses ingenuity (that’s right, I thought to use the pliers as a sort of block to hammer lose the big central nut that would not come loose and was too big for our biggest wrench) AND WD40, and that’s a winning combination.  And I have to admit: I’ve always loved hardware stores.  They fill me with a sense of possibility, as if I might be doing more than just fixing a toilet, as if I might be building a beautiful, sunlit studio right between the asparagus patch and the apple tree.  Hmmmm.

Competence and achievement, or the promise of them, have the power to pull me through another tired day, but more than that, they help me look at the usual crap fromclean desk a different position.  Today, for example, I didn’t just sort and file papers (again!): I cleaned my desk!  It’s beautiful, with a new lamp and an inspiring new print from my artist friend Kim Crichton (check her stuff out here!).  I didn’t just manage the ongoing saga of familial healthcare: I was an effective advocate for my son in a meaningful conversation with a doctor that settled some important points.  The energy to do things today, and the capacity to see them as whole and important, come from the toilet’s reminder that I am competent, that I can achieve things…and now the desk will remind me of the same thing.  (Right up until it’s covered in clutter again, I suppose…hey, we’re all a work in progress.)  My environment usually conspires against me, rife as it is with the needs and detritus of people’s lives.  But sometimes it’s useful to remember that the spaces we live in can also show us our best selves, if we’re willing to work to let them.