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 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 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 23. Transferable skills of parenting.

This has been a thing of mine for a while, this issue of the transferability of parenting skills.  Folks seem to think that when you “step off the career track” you’re losing ground all the while.  Everyone else speeds on without you.  But people don’t pay enough attention to the vast array of really critical work/life skills that parenting develops.  So I do. Some of them are these:

1. The ability to balance your own interests with those of others.  Nothing short of a screaming toddler or a third night-time waking will so thoroughly test the limits of your own needs  while simultaneously requiring you to manage the needs of someone else. It’s cruel but entirely usual, and frankly, it’s the best training I’ve ever seen for raising consciousness about the depth and dimensions of our various interests.  We have to get creative, and eventually that creativity becomes a habit.  Bam.  Leg up on the non-parenting competition.  (This obviously applies also to less-critical issues like going to the grocery store vs. going to the playground — an even better analogy for the workplace negotiations we will now be able to rock.)

2. The good sense not to ask a question if you don’t care about the answer.  Ezra, can you pick up your toys?  “No.”  Oh.  But you simultaneously develop much keener skill at asking good questions and really hearing their answers.  Malachi, are you ready to go to bed?  No.  That means he wants to nurse more, which often means he’s thirsty.  We’ve addressed that by giving him a sippy cup of water, but he sometimes forgets it’s available…so after a few more minutes of nursing, I can TELL him (not ASK) that it’s time for bed and ask him if he wants some water.  The analogy here, of course, is the workplace environment where employees are invited to think their input matters, whereas in fact it does not.  Brutal.  But good leaders and colleagues (and parents) will ask genuine questions and learn from the answers; good assessment (and parenting) asks smart questions we want answered and then makes meaningful use of those answers.  Win win win win.  Win.

3. The capacity to be patient with, and even fascinated by, processes different from your own.  This is a tough one for me because I’m an efficiency hound and I generally figure that my way is the best way.  (It generally is.  Objective studies have proven this.)  But the very small among us of course have different rules and capacities, and they’ll never get anywhere if we keep doing for them.  So breathing in and out while watching them do what they do has to become a kind of sport.  And it’s actually brilliantly amazing if you build in the room and the time and the safety nets in case of accident.  In the workplace this one is tougher because, well, sometimes there really aren’t as many ways to get a certain task done, and usually you’re dealing with adults who can reasonably be expected to both seek and attain a degree of efficiency.  But still: to be willing to watch, to hand something over, and to have planned enough that you can truly be free with it, is a rare gift to everyone involved.  No other experience teaches that as well as parenting.

4. The inclination to wonder, to question, and to celebrate.  Adult life is dull enough, thanks to our cultural training in what’s expected: sober attitudes, cautious approaches, polite responses.  And these are good.  But what happened to exuberance?  What about those glorious peals of laughter we used to emit?  What about our innate desire to spend hours face-down belly-up to a tide-pool, watching its tiny inhabitants craft their world?  Children remind us of all these things, and they remind us that life is short and sparkling and way more astounding than we can imagine.  To carry that awareness into a work environment is a thing of beauty as well as a boost to productivity.  Example: in a discussion recently about an area non-profit’s many programs, I pointed out that people receiving some services may not be receiving others.  The challenge was raised that it may not want to advertise some services where there are limited resources, like home heating fuel assistance, because we don’t want to build a market where we have no solution.  But “no solution” sounded wrong to me, trained as I am in the vagaries of childhood mentalities.  Surely a deficit of money to give to folks to buy heating oil is not the only way to help a state heat its homes?  What about creating local industries around new, high-efficiency wood-pellet stoves and the manufacture of wood pellets to burn in them?  “No solution” is an adult’s response, and one we’d do well to get past.  We may not SEE a solution; we may not HAVE one yet, but we can keep dreaming and studying and asking and working until we get some better ideas.  Am I right?

I’m sure there will be more of these as I move ahead, since it’s been such a theme for me for so long now, but I just wanted to get these off my chest.  There are a million reasons why time away from careers, devoted to parenting, is in the best interests of everyone and everything, but not enough of us talk about how it makes us better when we go back to work.  You WANT parents stepping back on the track when they feel ready: you want to hire them, to work with them, to live near them.  They bring skills and assets that just don’t have room to blossom in most full-time career-track folks.  Yes, time away is a privilege — and one that can serve all of us.

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 the restlessness

You know the restlessness I mean.

The one that shows up at inappropriate times, times that you’d been looking forward to, like vacation or other brief eras of freedom in the midst of our pressured lives.

It’s a sudden and unwelcome thing, the byproduct, perhaps, of a sudden sense of possibility and too many ways to take it.

I myself have done a surprisingly good job staving off that restlessness after my decision to devote the fall (at least) to not teaching.  I have a bunch of other projects and a much larger pile of hopes and desires, and now, two days after submitting summer grades, they all seem elusive.

I’m back to unpleasant chore lists (call and haggle with the health insurance company!  Clean the basement!) interrupted by occasional fits of checking out (complete with Netflix and chocolate cake).  This is not what I had imagined.

The amusing part is that it IS, in fact, exactly what I had foreseen, and I’m only really surprised that it took me this long to fall in the hole.  I am a structure person, you see, and I seem to do best when I have clear windows of time and neatly delineated tasks.  Getting comfortable with freedom, in fact, is my greatest struggle.  And it’s one I’m diving into today.

How’s that going?  you might ask.  Well, there’s tea and chocolate; there’s a measure of compassion; there’s a great deal of planning.  There’s even quite a bit of productivity.  But I have this illusion that the in-between times are also somehow supposed to be Perfectly Satisfying, that we move fluidly from Great Achievements to Profound Relaxation.  And back again, of course.  And that’s a bit tricky.  So overall, I’m trying to be happy with the long to-do lists that aren’t getting done (let’s be real: they are less lists and more repositories of all the many things in life and work that need to be done, unsorted by priority or purpose).  Indeed, I’m rather proud of myself for Doing Things and then, if they weren’t on the list already, putting them down so I can cross them off.

But I’d like for the FEEL of these days to shift.  Perhaps I’ll try a project-based approach, where there’s a little task-time but most of it is devoted to a particular project.  Or maybe I’ll get into Pomodoro, or some other time-management strategy.  It’s delightful that I have the freedom to try it a couple of days a week.  Now the hard work is quieting the guilt and managing the expectations.  But we’ll be fine.  Right?