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 20. Throwing up my hands.

It’s another round of giving up (a fun feature of this daily practice is that you get to experience these little cycles WITH me), with the usual surprising corollary of finding greater peace, usefulness, and happiness as a result.  Apparently life works better if you don’t overthink it.

Yesterday as I’m running out the door to the first session of my public humanities reading group, I notice my neighbor’s dog (who I’ve never met) alone on the sidewalk across the street.  I ask her where her people are and she runs across to me, dashing up the stoop to lick my hands.  I scratch her ears for a second and then take her gently by the collar to bring her back to her house.  I’m met halfway by her owner’s son, who hadn’t realized she was missing until just then and who came running out concerned.  We all felt lucky — I got some dog love; Scott got his mom’s dog back; the dog got more attention than usual.  Win win.

I head downtown to the aforementioned session, arriving about twenty minutes early. As I’m pulling into a parking space, I see a friend I haven’t seen in ages and I shout hello out my window.  (She’s really more of an acquaintance I’d LIKE to be friends with, but we never have the time to see each other.)  She was hovering near her car (parked in front of mine), looking indecisive; as I asked about her new baby, she said that she was in a quandary because the new baby was in the car screaming and she had to run into the library to pick up her two elder sons.  I offered to stand near the car to make sure nothing happened, so she could negotiate the many flights of stairs/elevator and the boy-collection in peace.  And she did and was grateful.  And I was grateful that I could help, that I was early enough not to worry at ALL, and that I could finally do something nice for someone else.  A problem with living a pretty isolated life, as we seem to, is that there are few opportunities to spontaneously give.  These felt good.

And today, in line at the massive and wonderful Common Ground Fair, someone behind me was talking with her mother about how she forgot sunscreen and was worried her daughters would get sunburned.  I turned around and offered my tube of sunscreen, which she looked confused by at first, but then accepted, gratefully.

Why are we confused by kindness?  Why do we often struggle with what to do in even simple situations like these?  How have we become a people who can even CONTEMPLATE cutting food stamps, health care, and other support services for the very people most in need?  What is it that happens in our heads to move us from “gee, I have some sunblock — want a squirt?” all the way to a conviction that it’s okay to starve people, to make them watch their kids suffer?  I know the dangerous machinations of the intellect — heck, in college I was famous for my rationalizations about skipping class: if I hadn’t done the reading, there was no point in going because I wouldn’t understand it; if I had done the reading, there was no point in going because it would just be repetitious.  But seriously: when we start thinking that it’s okay to just think with our heads, that we can SOLVE things by rational processing (or irrational processing) alone, we’re in big trouble.  And guess what?  We’re in big trouble.

So it’s a nice little reminder, in my own quiet life, that giving up on control, throwing up my hands at the chaos, is a GOOD thing.  It slows me down, trips me up, and pushes me right back to ground level where all I have is my basic humanity. Too tired to rationalize, and without much hope of doing it right even if I wasn’t, I end up simply responding to humans as humans.  (And dogs as dogs, apparently.)  That feels, I’m embarrassed to report, like a kind of progress.

On wading in: Day 19. The Joy Plan.

There’s the Happiness Project, Your Happiness Plan, The Wholehearted Life, The Purpose-Driven Life, Authentic Happiness, and a host of others.  They all tell you how to be happy.

Then why aren’t we?

Happiness seems a little overwhelming to me.  Like it’s a constant state of whistling and skipping, and there’s lots of yellow everywhere. There’s no room for my bad moods, for a rainy day playing hooky from all the productivity, for the kinds of mistakes I make and then brood about.  Not like it’s a hobby or anything, but still.  I don’t want to be FORCED into some kind of mandatory cheerfulness.

I find it easier to think about joy than happiness, because joy is always with me.  It underlies everything else, and it shows up at strange moments in the form of gratitude, pleasure, rest, peace, or harmony.  But still, joy eludes me often; it’s not a chronic state, and sometimes it shows up infrequently, leaving me to wonder harder where it got to and what I did to drive it away.

This, I suppose, is precisely the point.  Joy only shows up when you let it, and the kinds of worrying/planning/spiraling/self-loathing/anxiety-mongering behaviors I specialize in don’t give it a whole lot of room.

So I figure I should develop a Joy Plan of my own.  It will involve, first and foremost, a concerted and ongoing effort to notice when I start spiraling, sorting, “doing,” and to take a deep breath.  I want to remember, at those times, that I’m here, now, and that I get to do the other things another time.  That’s going to be my catch phrase: I “get to” do it later.  It will apply quite seriously to the aspects of my life I like, such as planning public humanities programming or finishing a novel or an article; it will apply ironically to the habitual aspects of my life I’m working to release, like self-flagellation or inventing elaborate responses to absurd and painful situations that have never happened and probably never will.  Later, I’ll say.  Right now you can play with your kids in the sun; tonight you can come back to that unpleasant FAKE argument you were having with someone IN YOUR HEAD and really finish it off with a sweet one-liner. That’ll show ’em.  Er, me.  Whatever.

The Joy Plan will also involve chocolate, which goes without saying.

It will involve more walks with people I like; more singing; more saying “yes.”  It will include baking and dancing and reading good books and making things out of cloth and yarn.  I’ve really slowed down on my crafting lately, and it can’t be good.  (I will confess, I made Ezra a pair of pajama pants from dinosaur fleece that he chose, but they’ve gone unreported because, well, they’re a little wide in the leg.  Suffice it to say that Len thinks they look like the goat leggings from Dragnet.  And he’s not wrong.)

It will involve writing more of the things I WANT to write (polemics against current policy; fake dialogues with people that really need to get out of my head and onto paper; poems, poems, poems).  I will worry less about what I imagine people want to hear and more about what I want to say.  They tell me that’s how it works best.

What else is involved in joy?  I’d like to get back into running, if my shins will cooperate — it just feels free and easy and energizing.  I can do anything when I run.
Most of all, it’s an attitude thing.  I want a list of good questions to ask myself every day: what am I most looking forward to?  What am I most grateful for?  What is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen today?  What surprised me the most?  What can we make today?  What can I help someone with today?  How can I challenge myself today?  How can I share myself today?

What other important questions are there?  What other great resources for cultivating joy?

On dancing and seeds and grace

grape hyacinth budHere’s my afternoon: starting seeds with Ezra in the basement; coming upstairs to find Len and Chi home from the grocery store and provisioned with a tasty new beer (well, Len, anyway); dancing with both babies to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.  Her song “Bonus 2,” which is essentially First Corinthians brought to extraordinary life, always reaches out to me — but today, as I held my small fevered Ezra in my arms and danced, it was transcendent.  To sing those ancient words of love to my son, through Lauryn’s music, to feel the rhythm move through the bones of this old white Colonial, well, I was shaken.  I was lifted up.

I don’t often write about spirituality, or at least not as such.  It’s partly because I feel those are kind of private issues, and also because I’m uncomfortable with the ways articulations of our own faith can end up looking or feeling like advocacy or pushiness to others.  I confess, I’m also tired of the self-congratulatory tone of lots of the writing out there on religion.  And also, let’s face it: I’m a seeker who was raised Quaker (more in the secular humanist end of that spectrum) in a kind of do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do sort of way.  So I have no sense of authority, only a heart full of questions and gratitude.  I tend, then to use the language of mindfulness or grace, since the former is more of a practice and the latter more of an acceptance of what seems an obvious and widely accepted truth.  For me, there are lots of interchangeable words that describe what I have faith in: love, beauty, the sacred, harmony, nature, the universe, grace, providence, serendipity, the Way, the Light, truth, hope, and of course the many permutations of god.  It is clear to me that music is sacred, as are the gifts of all artists and growers and makers and seekers — all creatures, and especially those who offer up something of beauty, who uncover or create or otherwise act with generosity in this sad and broken world.

I’ve been trying to read Margaret Wheatley’s So Far From Home, though it’s hard, because its premise is that we cannot change the world; we can only accept our powerlessness and do our best to live whole and beautiful lives by doing the right work because it is work that needs to be done.  That living, that standing in contrast to the crazy and the broken, is itself transformative.  I buy this, mostly, because it seems smart and truer than anything else I know, but I’m not wise enough or whole enough to live within it.  I’m trying.   Most days, I’m still seeking, perhaps too anxiously, for that “right work,” unable to accept that where I am is enough.  But on a day like today, that truth rings out: of course it’s enough.  Perhaps not forever, but I don’t live in forever.  I live right here, right now, right in the middle of all this beauty, surrounded on all sides by grace.

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.