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 parenting and patience

A dear friend and I talked today about the alarming uptick in irritation with our kids lately.  Naturally, we were unable to really HAVE the conversation because of the galloping and hollering of said kids.  (Climb the tree, climb the tractor, run barefoot into the barn; I want to SWIM but I won’t put my head under; Mama milk!  Mama milk!  You get the idea.)  So I sat down this evening to write out the rest of what I wanted to say, and it is this:

Dear Kate,
I’ve been sitting with your concerns about parenting and patience, not least because they are also mine.  I feel like maybe I hit this particular wall (at least, most notably, most recently) earlier this summer, so by now I’m both more cynical and blessedly more tolerant.  Of my own failings, that is.  I don’t like them, but I accept them and continue to work on trying to change them.

What’s trickiest for me is this: the circumstances that lead to shortness and eruptions are partly about me (have I scheduled the time I need for myself; am I using that time to best advantage; am I taking proper care of myself in all the textbook ways; am I feeding my creative energies; am I nurturing the relationships that I crave…) and partly about the world as I see it (am I using my gifts productively in the world; am I addressing problems I can see and help with; am I contributing to my kids’ lives in the ways I’d like to; am I speaking my truths to the powers that I humbly submit need to hear them).  It makes me crazy to have this bifurcated diagnosis.  I’d like to imagine that a renewed commitment to mindfulness as a practice would solve everything.  Truth is, it would help, but not solve.  I’d like to believe that finding meaningful paid work would fix things.  Truth is, it would help, but not solve.  In fact, it would create a host of other issues by draining away some of that vital attention that I now try to direct to my boys (which is, all by itself, getting harder as I get more interested in more and different things).  I suspect this is in part the curse of the smart, dedicated, socially-conscious parent: we engage with our kids and are fascinated by them, but there’s so much else that also engages and fascinates us that it’s hard to keep focus.  I feel like the theory of part-time work is beautiful, and sometimes it works out that way in real life as well.  But other times, we spend our days checking the clock or checking our email or jotting lists of things we’d rather be doing.  Of course we don’t hear everything the kids say.  They aren’t the only ones we’re listening to anymore.  And that’s hard for all of us.

Sometimes I wonder if shifting to full-time work would be a better plan.  Sometimes I wonder if giving up on work altogether and pouring myself into the kids, including home-schooling of a sort, would be a better plan.  Often I think that one or the other is an absolute necessity.  Now.  Today.  But my reality is that while I am not skilled at tacking back and forth between critical, engaging priorities, I seem to NEED it.  So I try to imagine that THIS is my work: this daily, excruciating, exquisite practice of loving everyone and everything I love according to their needs and my capacities.  That means it doesn’t always look the same, and some days feature a lot more cursing than others.  But I figure my kids must be learning some key lessons about the preciousness and precariousness of our lives, and they sure as heckfire are learning how to read and work with the moods of others.  I need to believe there’s value in that, too.

Most days, I think a little more structure would help; I turn to Pinterest for more ideas about creative play and how to get a handle on our lives.  Every day, I think a little more mindfulness would help; even a tiny practice like a three-minute meditation while the coffee brews has helped me enormously in the past.  It gives me distance from my life, in a way, and lets me see myself and my struggles in the vast context of the universe — and that, of course, lends me a little more humility and tolerance than I might otherwise be able to find.  I’ll take what I can get.  Mostly, these days, I’m working hardest on letting myself off the hook.  It feels a little like defeat, but hey.  Defeat and acceptance are siblings, I hear, and I’m trying not to ruin my life for the sake of some macho Western illusion.

Anyway.  This is all to say: I feel your pain.  Holy SMOKES, I feel your pain.  And for what it’s worth, I think you are an extraordinary parent: creative, loving, attentive, compassionate, smart, nurturing, supportive, concerned.  Your soft voice and obvious enthusiasm for your kids are models to me, as is your willingness to say yes, to follow them where they need to go, to give them the room to be themselves (within safe limits).  If I could cultivate your patience, I’d imagine myself a ten times better mother.  But I know how you feel, and that’s part of the point: the feeling is not necessarily well-calibrated to reality, and when it is, it just makes us cringe.  So we try to keep our eyes clear and our heads (and hearts) in the game and put one foot in front of the other.  And as we do it, we try to sing a little song, or pat a little cheek, or generally hold our whole selves open for the ridiculous beauty that just keeps showing up.